Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed technology that enables a smartphone to perform laboratory-grade medical diagnostic tests just as reliably as large, clinic-based spectrometer instruments—but at a fraction of the cost.

The spectral transmission-reflectance-intensity (TRI)-Analyzer costs just $550 and attaches to an Android smartphone, enabling it to analyze blood, urine and saliva samples. The handheld device operates by converting the smartphone’s camera into a high-performance spectrometer.

Brian Cunningham, the Donald Biggar Willett Professor of Engineering and director of the Micro + Nanotechnology Lab at Illinois, describes the TRI-Analyzer as the “Swiss Army knife of biosensing” in its ability to perform the most common types of tests in medical diagnostics. In fact, he contends that the system is capable of detecting the output of any test that uses a liquid that changes color, or a liquid that generates light output such as from fluorescent dyes.

“There are so many parts of the world that don’t have diagnostics labs, the tests are too expensive to perform or patients need the results right away,” says Cunningham, whose team used the handheld device to perform two commercially available assays—a test to detect a biomarker associated with pre-term birth in pregnant women and the PKU test for newborns to indirectly detect an enzyme essential for normal growth and development.

The tests results, which were comparable to those measured with clinic-grade instrumentation, were recently published in the journal Lab on a Chip.

“In each case, the TRI-Analyzer is capable of achieving limits of detection that are comparable to those obtained for the same assay measured with a conventional laboratory microplate reader, demonstrating the flexibility of the system to serve as a platform for rapid, simple translation of existing commercially available biosensing assays to a point-of-care setting,” conclude the authors.

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The TRI-Analyzer can measure multiple samples simultaneously by taking a microfluidic cartridge that slides through a reader “in the same way that you would slide a credit card through a magnetic strip reader,” adds Cunningham.

He notes that thousands of already developed diagnostic tests could be performed on the platform, such as cancer and cardiac biomarkers as well as infectious diseases. However, to be used for human diagnostics, the device will require clearance by the Food and Drug Administration.

“I’ve been contacted by dozens of companies that have interests in commercializing it,” Cunningham concludes. “The next step is to license the technology to companies and work with them to move from the laboratory to the product.”

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