Urine sample

‘Swiss Army knife of biosensing’ uses smartphone to detect common diseases

Image credit: Dreamstime

Bioengineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed technology which enables a smartphone to carry out laboratory-standard diagnostics tests that normally require expensive equipment.

The transmission-reflectance-intensity (TRI) Analyzer [sic] is capable of analysing blood, urine or saliva from a patient and can be attached to the back of an ordinary smartphone.

“Our TRI Analyzer is like the Swiss Army knife of biosensing,” said Professor Brian Cunningham, director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Illinois. “It’s capable of performing the three most common types of tests in medical diagnostics, so in practice, thousands of already-developed tests could be adapted to it.

The device works using a smartphone camera, which it utilises as a high-performance spectrometer. A sample fluid is illuminated with the phone’s white flash, or with a cheap external light source, and the light from the sample is sent through an optical fibre, through a diffraction grating in the phone’s front-facing camera.

Lab on a chip

University of Illinois

Image credit: University of Illinois

The analyser costs just $550, while clinical instruments which perform the same job in hospitals typically cost thousands of dollars.

Professor Cunningham’s team have already used the small diagnostics device to perform both a test to detect a biomarker associated with premature birth and the “PKU test” for new-born children, which detects an enzyme necessary for normal development.

The researchers found that their test results using the TRI Analyzer were comparable to those acquired with standard clinic-grade instrumentation.

“The TRI Analyzer is more of a portable laboratory than a specialised device,” said Kenny Long, author of the study and a PhD study in Professor Cunningham’s lab.

According to Long, there are many diagnostic tests which could be performed with the TRI Analyzer, with some adaptations made. For instance, the system is capable of detecting changes in colour of a liquid, or liquids that generate light input, such as from a fluorescent dye.

The researchers have also made it possible to measure a number of samples at once, by adding a small microfluidic cartridge to the device. This could make the TRI Analzyer suitable for quick, reliable analysis of samples: ideal for patients without close access to a well-equipped hospital or clinic.

The researchers suggest that the TRI Analyzer could have further applications in animal health, environmental monitoring, drug testing, food safety and other sectors.

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