Prototype iPhone biosensor detects viruses, bacteria, toxins, allergens

By: Neil Versel | May 30, 2013        

Tags: | | | | | |  |

Illinois Smartphone BiosensorResearchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a versatile iPhone-based biosensor that, with about $200 worth of parts, is just as accurate as a $50,000 laboratory spectrophotometer.

The system, consisting of an iPhone cradle and an app, can detect viruses, bacteria, toxins, proteins and even allergens in food using the smartphone’s camera as a spectrometer and the powerful processor to make calculations.

“The technology allows us to take a lot of existing medical tests and do them on a handheld device,” team member Kenneth D. Long, who is working on a medical degree and a Ph.D. in bioengineering at Illinois, tells MobiHealthNews. “We think it’s a very promising technology.”

Team leader Brian Cunningham, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering at the university, started the project about two years ago, and Long joined when he began graduate school last year. They reported initial findings in a recent article in the journal Lab on a Chip – yes there is such a title.

In the journal article, the researchers reported results of “label-free” sensing for a specific protein, meaning that they did not use fluorescent dyes. “However, a lot of tests we’re looking at will use different color labels,” Long says.

Indeed, they have big plans for the technology. “We envision the capability for an inexpensive, handheld biosensor instrument with web connectivity to enable point-of-care sensing in environments that have not been practical previously,” the paper concludes.

Long reports that Cunningham applied for a provisional patent on the technology in January and is looking for ways to commercialize the product. The team recently landed a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue development and will be switching to the Android platform for a second-generation prototype, according to Long. He says that the open-source nature of Android provides app developers with more flexibility in changing test parameters such as exposure time.

Now, the bioengineering faculty and students have begun working with the school’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition to develop a smartphone-based tests vitamin A, vitamin D and iron deficiencies to help make sure children and pregnant women in developing countries are getting proper nutrition. “Our portable sensor would make that much easier,” Long says.

Other tests in the works include the detection of toxins in corn and soybeans. Long noted that it would be easier to commercialize crop-related applications because the device would not need Food and Drug Administration review as a medical device. The same is true for overseas uses.

For more, watch a video demonstration of the prototype biosensor. Long is wearing the black polo shirt.