Science

Apple iPhone's new cradle attachment turns it into an amazing biosensor

By Enozia Vakil , May 27, 2013 08:05 AM EDT

Researchers at the University of Illinois have been able to turn Apple's bestselling smartphone into a quick biosensor that may help detect toxins, viruses, proteins, bacteria and other molecules.

Complete with a cradle that aligns a series of lenses and filters with the smartphone's in-built camera, the iPhone is all set to help you perform inexpensive medical diagnostic tests right in the palm of your hand.

Researchers also believe that this 'cradled' iPhone may do anything and everything from mapping the spread of pathogens, to detecting contaminations in food processing chains.

"Smartphones are making a big impact on our society," Brian Cunningham, research team leader and a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering at the University of Illinois, said. "And they have really powerful computing capability and imaging. A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones."

Given that this attachment is simple and portable, it could prove to be a good replacement for the hefty and bulky laboratory equipments that are used to detect these molecules. What's more, at a price tag of around $200, iPhones may now act as an alternative for expensive laboratory instruments and spectrometers costing thousands of dollars.

The biosensor attachment leverages a photonic crystal, which is similar to a mirror, except that it reflects just one particular wavelength of light. Viruses, bacteria, proteins and other biological molecules, when attached to this photonic crystal, cause the reflected wavelength of light to shift to a longer wavelength, allowing their detection.

"We're interested in biodetection that needs to be performed outside of the laboratory,"Cunningham said. "Smartphones are making a big impact on our society - the way we get our information, the way we communicate. And they have really powerful computing capability and imaging. A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones. They can detect molecular things, like pathogens, disease biomarkers or DNA, things that are currently only done in big diagnostic labs with lots of expense and large volumes of blood."

The device is now road-ready and can detect immune system proteins with ease, and with a few tweaks here and there, it may detect any biological molecule or cell, researchers say. The team is also currently working on developing tests that may help detect toxins in harvested corn and soyabean, with this simple iPhone attachment.

With a generous grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers now aim at expanding the applications of this iPhone attachment and sensor. Work is now being done to help detect iron and vitamin A deficiency in expecting mothers and kids. The researchers will also develop this new cradle attachment for Android phones.

"It's our goal to expand the range of biological experiments that can be performed with a phone and its camera being used as a spectrometer," Cunningham said. "In our first paper, we showed the ability to use a photonic crystal biosensor, but in our NSF grant, we're creating a multi-mode biosensor. We'll use the phone and one cradle to perform four of the most widely used biosensing assays that are available."

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