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Portable smartphone lab detects cancer and delivers near-instant results

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Having to wait for test results when the diagnosis may be cancer can be harrowing, to say the least. A newly developed smartphone tool may soon be able to solve that problem.

Researchers from Washington State University are testing a low-cost, portable laboratory on a smartphone that can analyze several samples at once to catch a cancer biomarker and produce lab-quality results. Patients could get nearly instant diagnoses in a physician’s office, an emergency room or an ambulance.

The research team, led by Lei Li, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, created an eight-channel smartphone spectrometer that can detect human interleukin-6 (IL-6), a known biomarker for lung, prostate, liver, breast and epithelial cancers. A spectrometer analyzes the amount and type of chemicals in a sample by measuring the light spectrum.

Although smartphone spectrometers exist, they only monitor or measure a single sample at a time, making them inefficient for real world applications. Li's multichannel spectrometer can measure up to eight different samples at once using a common test called ELISA, or colorimetric test enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, that identifies antibodies and color change as disease markers.

Although the team has only used the smartphone spectrometer with standard lab-controlled samples, Li reports the device has been up to 99% accurate. They are now applying their portable spectrometer in real world situations.

"With our eight-channel spectrometer, we can put eight different samples to do the same test, or one sample in eight different wells to do eight different tests. This increases our device's efficiency," said Li, who has filed a provisional patent for the work. "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," he said. "They can't carry a whole lab with them. They need a portable and efficient device."

Li's design works with an iPhone 5. He is creating an adjustable design that will be compatible with any smartphone. The team’s work was recently published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

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