This new app turns iPhones into a handheld biosensor equivalent to $50,000 lab unit

iPhone biosensor cradle and app
© Brian T. Cunningham

Researchers have developed and built an app and docking cradle that uses the phone's own in-built camera and processor to convert it into an accurate mobile biosensor, turning $200 in optical components into the equivalent of a $50,000 lab spectrophotometer.

The researchers, at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have developed a cradle containing optical filters and lenses that are more likely to be found in big and expensive lab systems, that holds the iPhone's camera in correct alignment with the optical components.

A microscope slide, coated with photonic material (which reflects just a single wavelength of light while passing the rest of the spectrum through it) and primed to react to a specific target molecule, is inserted into the cradle, allowing the device to measure the spectrum of the sample on the slide. The spectrum is then re-measured, which allows the device to calculate the degree of shift between the sample and a control, and the degree of shift indicates the amount of the target molecule found in the sample.

This portable biosensor is capable of detecting viruses, bacteria, proteins, toxins, and other specific modules, and takes just a few minutes to process, which could greatly speed up in-the-field assessments of issues as diverse as groundwater contamination, medical diagnostics, mapping the spread of pathogens, or tracking contaminants in the food system.

"We’re interested in biodetection that needs to be performed outside of the laboratory. Smartphones are making a big impact on our society – the way we get our information, the way we communicate. And they have really powerful computing capability and imaging. A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones. They can detect molecular things, like pathogens, disease biomarkers or DNA, things that are currently only done in big diagnostic labs with lots of expense and large volumes of blood." - Brian Cunningham, U. of I. professor of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering

Cunningham's team is working to improve the iPhone cradle manufacturing process and develop an Android version as well, and hope to have them ready for release by next year.

This new app turns iPhones into a handheld biosensor equivalent to $50,000 lab unit
Smartphones can be turned into accurate biosensors for detecting toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses and other molecules with this new technology.

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