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Multi-channel Smartphone Spectrometer Enables Clinical Laboratory Testing Quickly and Accurately in Remote Regions

Researchers say high accuracy of this $150 portable optical spectrometer enables mobile diagnostic technologies to achieve pathology test results comparable to traditional spectrometers costing far more

What’s the latest thing in a smartphone diagnostic device? It’s a multi-channel smartphone spectrometer! Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) designed the device to detect human cancer biomarkers. It’s hoped that this device can improve cancer detection in rural areas where clinical laboratories may not be easily accessible.

The Multichannel Smartphone Spectrometer (MSS) is a highly accurate, low-cost, portable diagnostic device capable of detecting human cancer biomarkers equally well in rural and busy hospital settings.

Fast, Accurate, Handheld Spectrometry

The smartphone spectrometer is unique to pathology. The first generation of this mobile medical application (MMA) device arrived on the medical scene in 2013. It has been making steady improvements ever since in terms of results and speed of diagnosis.

One limitation, however, to MMA devices has been the speed at which the mobile computer platform (smartphone or tablet) could process samples. Basically, these initial mobile spectrometers were single-channel only devices that could perform just one test at a time, thereby limiting the scope of the technology and its usefulness in the field.

Now, engineering professors and graduate researchers at the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME) at Washington State University have developed a handheld optical spectrometer for the smartphone that performs optical biosensing simultaneously on multiple channels. This shortens time to answer and contributes to a faster diagnosis.

According to a research study published in the Science Direct online journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics, the new device enables doctors to immediately treat multiple patients by “bringing bio-detection technologies from central medical laboratories to fields and clinics” as part of a mobile point-of-care testing (MPOCT) effort.

How MSS Impacts High-Throughput Point-of-Care Diagnostics

According to lead faculty researchers Lei Li, PhD and Li-Ju Wang, PhD, “Conventional laboratory optical spectral analyzers/readers, which have dedicated light splitting, guiding, and fitting mechanisms, and high-sensitivity light sensors, are normally very expensive and bulky. To deliver onsite biomedical diagnostics, there are tremendous needs in transition from laboratory testing to mobile diagnostic platforms.”

The development of the first generation of small, low-cost, smartphone spectrometers made an impact by removing many of the hurdles associated with MPOCT. However, they were limited by one-detection modality, which, according to Drs. Li and Wang, meant “that only one sample [could] be monitored or measured in each measurement by these smartphone spectrometers.” That’s why Drs. Li and Wang developed an MPOCT spectrometer that could operate on multiple samples simultaneously.

With the assistance of graduate researchers Yu-Chung Chang and Rongrong Sun, PhD, they developed a multi-channel smartphone spectrometer that can do just that.

The Multichannel Smartphone Spectrometer (above) employs a 3D-printed cradle to hold the smartphone and optical components, which include a microplate reader and a prism array. The setup enables researchers to monitor and process up to eight different samples at once with lab-quality accuracy. (Photo copyright: Washington State University.)

The Multichannel Smartphone Spectrometer (above) employs a 3D-printed cradle to hold the smartphone and optical components, which include a microplate reader and a prism array. The setup enables researchers to monitor and process up to eight different samples at once with lab-quality accuracy. (Photo copyright: Washington State University.)

Doctors in remote locations, or with limited clinical laboratory access or limited budgets for laboratory work, now can use the MSS to achieve lab-level results quickly and easily for an estimated cost of less than $150 USD per biosensor.

Drs. Li and Wang illustrated the results of their MSS by “quantifying protein concentrations and immunoassaying a cancer biomarker that are both essentially important in disease clinic diagnosis and biomedical research,” according to the research study.

From left, Li-Ju Wang, PhD, and, Lei Li, PhD, the two assistant engineering professors who led a research team at the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Washington State University, that developed the Multichannel Smartphone Spectrometer (MSS). (Photo copyright: Washington State University.)

From left, Li-Ju Wang, PhD, and, Lei Li, PhD, the two assistant engineering professors who led a research team at the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Washington State University, that developed the Multichannel Smartphone Spectrometer (MSS). (Photo copyright: Washington State University.)

According to an article in the Free Press Journal, the new MSS is capable of measuring up to eight samples simultaneously using ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), a colorimetric test that identifies antibodies and color change as disease markers.

Drs. Li and Wang used the ELISA test to look for the biomarker human Intereukin-6 (IL-6) in human serum. IL-6 is a protein that, according to the International Journal of Biological Sciences (IJBS), is known to be a marker for inflammation-associated cancers like those found in lung, prostate, liver, breast, and epithelial cancers. According to the research study, it can be used “to track, classify, and prognose,” other cancers as well.

MSS Enables Pathologists to Detect Cancer without a Clinical Laboratory

As all pathologists and medical laboratory scientists are aware, time is a critical factor in diagnosing cancers in the early stages of development. The quick and accurate test results provided by the MSS could enable nearly instantaneous diagnoses of early biomarkers, allowing for speedy responses by doctors, and earlier treatments for patients.

A report by Phys.Org points out that “although Li’s group has only used the smartphone spectrometer with standard lab-controlled samples, their device has been up to 99% accurate. This, according to Drs. Wang and Li, is a successful demonstration of their MSS’ “high accuracy and high sensitivity compared with the lab instrument,” as well as its ability to fulfill clinical diagnostic requirements.

MSS is Diagnostically Adaptable

One benefit of MSS is its adaptability for diagnostic needs across disciplines and research fields. Although Drs. Li and Wang have focused their development of the MSS on cancer detection, according to an article from Washington State University, “early lab testing is demonstrating the variety of industries that would benefit from this technology—from farmers who want to diagnose the health of plants in the field to healthcare professionals who want more consistent diagnostic data to determine the health of their patients.”

The current version of Drs. Li and Wang’s design uses an iPhone 5. However, the team is looking to adapt the system for use with a range of operating systems and diagnostic apps.

It would be reasonable to expect that the analytical accuracy and time to answer will get better with each generation of these devices. What will hasten adoption of this diagnostic technology for such uses as diagnosing cancer will be how quickly the cost per test can be reduced. There may be an opportunity for clinical laboratories to support and supervise the use of these devices in near-patient settings.

— Amanda Warren

Related Information:

WSU Portable Smartphone Laboratory Detects Cancer

A Multichannel Smartphone Optical Biosensor for High-throughput Point-of-care Diagnostics

Portable Smartphone Laboratory Detects Cancer

Rapid Point-of-Care Disease Diagnostics Using Smartphone

Interleukin-6: A Key Regulator of Colorectal Cancer Development

New Portable Smartphone Lab Can Accurately Detect Cancer

Multichannel Optical Biosensor May Detect Cancer

Portable Smartphone Test May Be Able to Identify Cancer Biomarker

Rapid Point-of-Care Disease Diagnostics Using Smartphone

Smartphone Instrument for Portable Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assays

UCLA Researchers Develop Lens-Free Smartphone Microscope, Pathologists May Be Able to Take the Clinical Pathology Laboratory Just About Anywhere

Smartphone “Dongle” Achieves Capabilities of Big Clinical Laboratory Analyzers: Diagnoses Three Diseases at Once from Single Drop of Blood

New Fast, Inexpensive, Mobile Device Accurately Identifies Healthcare-Acquired Infections and Communicates Findings to Doctors’ Smartphones and Portable Computers

Pathologists and Researchers Predict Development Trajectory for Biomarker-based Molecular Diagnostics in Support of Translational Medicine

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