Researcher developing low-cost, hand-held probe to find cancer, monitor vital signs

Article and photo from the Windsor Star

By: Brian Cross, Windsor Star - October 12, 2016

The benefit to humanity will be “tremendous” if a University of Windsor graduate student’s invention — a hand-held, low-cost medical diagnostic probe that detects cancer, maps out the heart and other organs, and monitors vital signs — turns out as hoped.

This probe, that employs microelectromechanical system (MEMS) technology, will be the size of a Rubik’s Cube. You’ll hold it about a metre away from a patient, using ultra-wide band radar to map out organs at a small fraction of the cost of doing MRIs, CT scans or X-Rays, without the risk of harmful radiation.

“So it’s totally safe for the body,” said Sujitha Vejella, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student working in Prof. Sazzadur Chowdhury’s MEMS lab.

She says her probe will be able to detect and locate early-stage cancers. It has the potential to become a standard tool for doctors, helping to reduce the need for expensive MRIs and CT scans and thus reducing their wait times. It will be portable, allowing doctors to bring use it in remote areas like the villages in her native India.

Chowdhury even imagines a future when people could have their own, much like how people today can get home blood pressure monitors from their neighbourhood Wal-Mart.


The payoff could be “tremendous,” he said. “The societal impact would be huge.”

Vejella started a year ago with a less ambitious goal, to develop a probe that could detect the heart rate without any contact with the body.

“But as we went on, we kept getting new ideas and tried to implement these,” she said. One idea involves using the device to monitor a patient with suspected sleep apnea. Instead of hooking a patient up to wires in a sleep lab, he could remain at home, his breathing and heart rhythms monitored by the probe located on his bedside table.

She’s presenting her research — her proof of how it will work — in Montreal next week at Innovation 360, the national micro-nano conference where she’ll be competing with eight other graduate student finalists.

The device has not been built yet. That will be the next step, involving finding several million dollars in funding to build a prototype and then test how it works. 

Chowdhury’s MEMS lab develops microscopic machines with moving parts. His team has already developed a device employing ultra-wide band radar to help driverless cars detect objects (a prototype is currently being built in Germany) and Vejella used that nanotechnology for her medical probe.

If you were trying to look at the heart, the probe would a deliver electromagnetic pulse that would go through the skin, fat, muscle, cartilage, lung and finally the heart, deflecting signals back at every stage.

When a signal returns, it is detected by an array of microwave pixels, which use microfabricated mechanisms to measure and generate a series of 2D images which then generate a 3D image. 

The high-resolution image is comparable to the images delivered by conventional imaging machines “at a much lower cost,” according to Chowdhury. MRIs and CT machines cost several million dollars, not including the considerable cost of the reinforced buildings that house them and the manpower required to staff them. Chowdhury said the cost of the new probes would be five to 10 per cent what conventional diagnostic systems cost, or even less.

Even if it doesn’t replace MRIs and CT scans, it might be used as the first test to find cancer in the early stages, reducing the number of people needing the more expensive scans. 

“Lots of things it can help us with, we cannot think of yet at this stage,” Chowdhury said. “How far it can go, we cannot say at this point. This technology is a new technology and has lots of promise.”