A research team at Washington State University led by Dr. Lei Li, Assistant Professor at the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, just developed a “portable laboratory” for smartphones that detects the cancer biomarker human interleukin-6 (IL-6) with lab-quality results. The article was recently published in Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, this is the first time a multichannel smartphone spectrometer has analyzed cancer biomarkers. Until now, spectrometers on smartphones could only detect one channel, making them inefficient and difficult to use in real world scenarios.

Researchers use an iPhone camera with a custom app to detect cancer biomarker

Li is hopeful that the multichannel spectrometer can be utilized in low-resource settings where it’s  impractical to have an on-site lab. “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,” Lei Li said. “They can’t carry a whole lab with them. They need a portable and efficient device.”  The total cost of the multichannel optical biosensor is less than $150 USD.

The smartphone spectrometer utilizes the phone’s camera, diffraction grating, microprism array and 96-well microplate to examine samples via enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to find changes in color and antibodies. IL-6 is a biomarker for many cancers, including lung, prostate, liver and breast. The spectrometer’s eight channels mean: eight samples are placed in the wells for the same test, or one sample is tested for eight different cancers.  Li and researchers utilized a custom iOS app made in Swift for the software processing.

Li and his team found the device to be 99% accurate, but only tested it in a laboratory setting using an iPhone 5. They’re currently researching using the mobile lab in real-world scenarios with other smartphones.