Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Incredible Inventions: Dr. Seung Kim's Biosensors

The public is told by health professionals constantly that early detection is key to combating almost any disease.

Early detection, however, necessitates regular doctor appointments, adequate health insurance, and the monetary means that both require. Early detection tests are not a system that can be used easily in everyday life, so many go without them.

Dr. Seung Kim
Dr. Seung Kim of LeTourneau University has a plan to change the meaning of the term “early detection.” He’s creating a biosensor that can test blood for disease within a patient’s home – no wait for results, no trips to the doctor’s office, and no high cost.

The biosensor is small – it can be held in one hand – and easy to use. It pricks the finger, and results are readily available. It will be able to detect anything a normal blood test would - cancers, cardiovascular disease, glucose levels – the applications are broad.

“The vision is for the average person to be able to use it in their own home,” Kim said. “It can predict if you’re going to have a heart attack in a few days.”

Kim’s work is so promising, he has been awarded a $400,000 NSF Career Grant by the National Science Foundation. It’s a difficult grant to receive, but Kim was awarded it on first proposal.

Applicants are only allowed to apply for the grant three times. Kim was pleased to be granted the money upon his first proposal.

“These grants are rarely given on the first attempt,” Kim said. “Usually it takes all three tries.”

It’s not only early and easy detection that makes the biosensor important; it could also play a crucial role in worldwide healthcare.

“This is good for global health. Third world countries don’t have the resources for testing. Even if they had the money, testing systems aren’t available. Doctors will be able to take this with them and provide clinics with a method of testing,” Kim said.

Grad student Chris Mounce, who also works on the project, said: "This really shows what LeTourneau Engineering is all about: designing new and innovative technologies that not only push boundaries, but also work to improve the lives of people worldwide.”

LeTourneau engineering students are reaping benefits as well, albeit theirs are academic. A group of students have worked on the biosensor for their senior design project (a year-long task all engineering students work on their final year) and it’s provided ample experience for the future careers and continued education.

Grad student Josh Brake, who has worked on the project for a few years, credits his acceptance into Caltech’s extremely competitive program to study biophotonics. Less than 2 percent of applicants are admitted; Brake starts working toward his PhD in the fall.

He did his thesis research for his M.S. Electrical Engineering degree on the biosensor, and he has high hopes for its success:

“This device has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare industry and change the way medicine is practiced both in the US and in other developing countries where access to a low-cost device would have a tremendous impact.”

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