An iPhone is being used by a university engineering research group to act as a biosensor that detects toxins, pollutants, proteins, bacteria and viruses. It will become a mobile tool for those who work in the environmental, medical, and food safety professions.

A professor and his graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign developed a cradle and an app using the iPhone?s built in camera and processing power as the biosensor. Dr. Brian T. Cunningham is Director of the University Bioengineering Graduate Program and winner of the 2010 IEEE Sensors Council Technical Achievement Award. He says his team is focused on biodetection that needs to occur outside a laboratory setting. For example, the system would combine the iPhone?s GPS data with that collected by the biosensor to map the spread of pathogens or track contaminants in the food distribution chain.

Echoing current thought, he says many medical conditions can be monitored less expensively and non-invasively with devices such as smartphones. Disease markers can be detected without the use of large diagnostic labs and volumes of blood.

His Nano Sensors Group is applying electromagnetics and nanotechnology to develop next-generation tools used in life science research, pharmaceutical screening, genomics, disease diagnosis, and environmental monitoring. This article discusses the smartphone in the role of a detection instrument which uses its integrated camera as a spectrometer.

Integrating biosensors with microplates enables biosensor experiments to be performed at high throughput and low cost per assay

The iPhone system consists of a cradle filled with optical components, such as lenses and filters, that aligns the phone?s camera with its optical components. The photonic crystal of the biosensor reflects one wavelength of light. When anything biological, such as protein or DNA, attaches to the crystal, the reflected color shifts to a longer wavelength from a shorter one. A microscope slide coated with the photonic material is primed to react to a specific target molecule. The degree of shift in the reflected wavelength indicates to the app how much of the target molecule is in the tested sample. The test takes just a few minutes and the low cost cradle components perform as well as the larger $50,000 spectrophotometers found in larger, traditional laboratories.

Lab on a Chip holds frequent gatherings for nano enthusiasts

An early article telegraphed the direction in which Dr. Cunningham?s work was going. It was titled: A label-free photonic crystal biosensor imaging method for detection of cancer cell cytotoxicity and proliferation. His current research resulted in a paper published in the journal Lab On A Chip. The organization holds symposiums world wide. Their European Congress met in Barcelona, Spain this March, with their World Congress scheduled to meet in San Diego, California September 12-13, 2013, almost simultaneously with another gathering in Bangalore, India on the 27 and 28 of the same month.

One of their projects is coordinating on research aimed at detecting iron and vitamin A deficiency in expectant mothers and children. The biosensor?s portability and lower price makes it perfect for use in developing countries where such problems can go undetected.

In addition to the iPhone app, an Android version is in the works. In a video (below), Professor Cunningham and his graduate students demonstrate their development using a smartphone camera as a high resolution spectrophotometer.