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CHICAGO — Imagine getting a cancer diagnosis in just a matter of minutes. A University of Illinois engineer did just that with a diagnostic tool he wants doctor’s offices and hospitals to have on the countertop.

“The sensor works a little bit like a microscope,” engineer Dr. Brian Cunningham said.

It is portable and inexpensive with the table-top device built with around $7,000 in parts.

“The new technology we developed is a very sensitive way for detecting and counting individual molecules,” Dr. Cunningham said.

They aren’t just looking for any molecules — Dr. Cunningham and his team at the Cancer Center at Illinois are looking for fragments of tumor cells. With just a few drops of blood, their phototonic resonator absorption microscope (PRAM) uses special crystals to spot tiny biomarkers early.

The invention is designed to identify multiple forms of cancer.

“We have projects where we’re using it in prostate cancer and breast cancer and also the recently published work is in the area of liver cancer.” Dr. Cunningham said.

Current diagnostic tests require a large volume of blood or tissue samples taken during a biopsy. The PRAM can pick up cancer with a smaller sample and higher sensitivity.

“We only need a handful of the molecules we’re looking to detect in order to get a positive result,” Dr. Cunningham said.

The technology can also help determine whether chemotherapy is working.

“If they see the treatment is working this kind of method can be more sensitive than actually looking at the tumor by imaging to see whether the tumor shrank, you can actually see these things earlier by measuring molecules in the blood,” Dr. Cunningham said.

He hopes to distribute his invention to doctor’s offices and hospitals.

“They’d like to know the answer for some of these things before the patients leaves them,” Dr. Cunningham said. “So they can start them on chemotherapy or give them an answer right away rather than waiting days or weeks.”

Dr. Cunningham has applied for patents on the technology an hopes to work with a larger company to bring the tool to market.