The Smart Magazine About Medical Technology Innovations

#30- Innovative Labs

Rapid, Low-Cost Labs on a Smartphone

Smartphones have revolutionized our communications, as tweets, text messages, and even occasional phone calls come flying at us. And these devices, actually handheld computers, are starting to change how healthcare is delivered. Smartphones now can replace blood pressure cuffs, thermometers and stethoscopes.
But even more dramatic applications are in the works. They will be able to perform clinical tests on patients, even in rural areas or resource-poor developing countries. Two US projects currently aim to create so-called “labs on smartphones.”

Finding Cancer Biomarkers

Lei Li, assistant professor at Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has developed a low-cost laboratory on a smartphone. He recently published a study demonstrating its ability to  find cancer biomarkers. The smartphone lab is nearly as accurate as standard equipment. It also was successful in measuring pathogens like E. coli in food, as well as some plant viruses.

“Patients and medical professionals expect always faster results.”

“At a time when patients and medical professionals expect always faster results, researchers are trying to transfer biodetection technologies used in laboratories to the field and clinic so patients can get nearly instant diagnoses in a physician’s office, an ambulance or the emergency room,” Li said.
He added that such rapid testing would be a boon to people who live in rural communities and small towns. Today, blood samples from these patients must be shipped to faraway labs.
Li’s team created a “smartphone multichannel spectrometer” that can detect human interleukin-6, a known biomarker for lung, prostate, liver, breast and epithelial cancer. The spectrometer analyzed chemical composition by measuring the spectrum of diffracted light passing through the sample.

Eight Samples At Once

Drawing of smartphone spectrometer device

Drawing of smartphone spectrometer device Courtesy of WSU

Other smartphone spectrometers measure only a single sample, not efficient enough for real-world applications. But the WSU system can measure up to eight samples at once with a colorimetric test enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay that identifies antibodies and color change as disease markers.
“The spectrometer would be especially useful in clinics and hospitals that have a large number of samples without on-site labs, or for doctors who practice abroad or in remote areas,” Li said. “They can’t carry a whole lab with them. They need a portable and efficient device.”
Li envisions the day when patients will use such smartphone labs at home to monitor chronic health problems a couple of times a year and send the results directly to their doctors.
“Cancer development needs a long time to go from the first stage to the final stage. If we can monitor our own bodies at home with a low-cost device, early detection will greatly increase survival rates,” he said.

A Prototype To Detect Zika

In another effort, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, a US Department of Energy facility in California, have developed a prototype smartphone lab that can detect mosquito-borne viruses, including Zika, dengue and chikungunya.

“We were able to adapt smartphone camera sensors to replace traditional laboratory sample analysis tools.”

Aashish Priye, chemical engineer on the project, said the device was designed to offer low-cost, rapid testing to resource-poor countries. The “Zika box” is a smartphone-controlled, battery-powered diagnostic device that weighs under a pound, costs as little as $100, including the smartphone, and can detect viruses within 30 minutes. Conventional tests require instruments the size of a microwave oven costing up to $20,000.
“In addition to creating an app that serves as a simple interface to operate the device, we were able to adapt smartphone camera sensors to replace traditional laboratory sample analysis tools, allowing for unprecedented mobility.”

Avoiding PCR

Conventional viral testing involves extracting DNA or RNA from a sample and multiplying the genetic material through an expensive, energy-intensive process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This can take days.
The Sandia device avoids PCR. It uses loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) diagnosis, eliminating pre-test sample processing. The addition of a few carefully designed biochemical agents allows a LAMP box to test a sample that is heated only once to 65° Celsius (150° Fahrenheit) for half an hour.

Photo by Dino Vournas

Photo by Dino Vournas Courtesy of Sandia Laboratories

Sandia chemical engineer and project lead Robert Meagher said the team developed a novel algorithm that allows a smartphone sensor to act as a fluorimeter, detecting light signals. LAMP works so simply that the user need only place the smartphone on top of the LAMP box and open the app. The app turns on the heater to initiate the LAMP reaction. Once terminated, the smartphone photographs the sample. A novel image analysis algorithm determines the color and brightness of the glow emitted from the sample.

Benefits For Rich Countries

“That’s good for the patient. That’s also good for public health.”

The team had already developed point-of-care technology in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. “Looking at Ebola, we thought it would be good if we could test Ebola plus other common illnesses in West Africa that would lead to similar symptoms. That includes malaria, dengue, chikungunya and a few others,” said Meagher.
He thinks the new units also offer potential benefits to rich countries. When Zika first emerged in Florida, labs couldn’t keep up with the demand for testing. People waited weeks for test results.
“With devices like this, clinicians could run the tests themselves without having to send out the samples. Patients could get results back the same day,” said Meagher. “That’s good for the patient. That’s also good for public health.”

Learn more about PCR test kits on

About the Author

Howard Wolinsky is a Chicago-based freelance journalist specializing in health-care topics.

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