Pierre and his brother Paul-Jacques were credited in the early 1880s with piezoelectricity, the ability of crystals and ceramics to generate small electric fields. This can be detected with devices called acoustic wave sensors (AWS), made much like computer chips.
What Jae Kwon (right) has done at the University of Missouri is to create AWS devices that work in liquid and can detect differences in the property of cancerous and non-cancerous cells, which have different masses.
These micro/nanoelectromechanical systems (M/NEMS) are smaller than a human hair, but deliver almost immediate results.
Currently cancer is detected through biopsies, taking a piece of suspected cancerous tissue and examining it under a microscope. Anyone who has had to wait for a biopsy, or knows someone who has, understands the pain of that wait.
This is, instead, a chemical test, that could be administered before the cancer is large enough to be extractable for a biopsy. It could also be used on blood to detect single-cell cancers after treatment, allowing treatment to continue until all the cancer is gone.
While most press coverage is talking about "home cancer kits," this is far more likely to see the light in clinics, where doctors can both deliver the bad news (if that's what it is) and start planning treatment during an initial visit.
Eventually these kits could become standard in general practice, much as pediatricians now detect strep throat in kids while the kids are in their offices. It holds the promise of cancer detection at its earliest stage, making treatment much easier.
Dr. Kwon has dubbed his lab the MIcro-nano Devices and Systems lab (MIDAS). Good name. He is currently working off a five-year award from the National Science Foundation given last year. The current lab includes six graduate students, three undergraduates and one kid who is still in high school.
I suspect they're all going to get jobs.