Turning phones into pocket-sized labs

The days of sending off a blood, saliva or urine sample to a laboratory and waiting days or even weeks for the results to come back could soon be over.

La Trobe University researchers have discovered a way to turn a mobile phone into a portable, pocket-sized laboratory that could be used for on-the spot disease detection.

The breakthrough technology would benefit patients in remote areas and in the developing world and may even lead to patients conducting their own home diagnostic tests in the future.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Conor Hogan said his team had found a way to exploit existing features of mobile phones to make chemical measurements using cheap disposable paper-based test strips, also developed in his lab at La Trobe.

“With this method there is no need for any other instrumentation whatsoever and the results are obtained directly by the phone using a software app,” Dr Hogan said.

“This significantly reduces the cost of chemical measurements and could make important diagnostic or environmental testing available to millions more people around the world.”

Dr Hogan said his team had used a mobile phone’s camera and audio functions to obtain chemical measurements.

“We attach wires from the audio jack of a phone to the paper-based test strip, which has a built-in sensor, and then place whatever sample we want to test onto the test strip,” Dr Hogan explained.

“We then apply a controlled voltage signal from the phone’s audio output to generate light that is detected by the camera on the phone.

“The sensor uses the electricity to trigger a luminescent chemical reaction – a process known as electrochemiluminescence - and that allows us to detect low concentrations of molecules of interest. Ultimately, this will include disease markers.

“The technology could eventually be used for early detection of diseases such as sepsis.”

In a further extension of mobile phone-based biosensing technology, Dr Hogan has collaborated with La Trobe electronic engineer Darrell Elton to demonstrate that the part of a mobile phone designed to measure sound via a microphone can be used for electrochemical measurements. They have called this method “android voltammetry”.

“This is particularly exciting because it opens up the possibility of a wide variety of tests, currently performed in a lab using expensive electrochemical equipment, being done using only a phone and a disposable test strip.

“We can test any liquid using our paper sensors - be it blood, urine or water. We have already used them to detect minute quantities of toxic metals.

“In the future, this will be a great tool to detect harmful chemicals in drinking water and assess the health of waterways.”

The La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science team is now collaborating with other groups at La Trobe and other universities to expand the technology to include more diagnostic tests. They are also working to make the software app more user friendly.

“At the moment measuring molecules, whether for water quality assessment or detecting diseases, is a job done by people in white coats. How great would it be if we could take the testing out of the laboratory and put it into the hands of doctors, nurses, patients or farmers?

“Providing people with the ability to easily and cheaply gain information relating to levels of chemical species in themselves or in their environment is potentially very empowering for individuals and communities.

“Our aim is to help people around the world to readily access vital information about their own health in a cost-effective way. The key to doing this is using the mobile device that is already in your pocket to develop new analytical devices.”

Media Contact Anastasia Salamastrakis 0428 195 464