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A Smartphone Spectrometer Diagnoses Disease At A Fraction Of The Price

New advances mean that tests that once required a $50,000 machine can now be performed with just a few hundred dollars of equipment, including your phone.

From eye-test machines to ultrasound probes, the smartphone is helping democratize all kinds of medical machinery. What used to be exclusive to well-resourced professionals is now open to many, including the very poor.

Here’s another example of the trend: a spectrometer that costs as little as $200. An iPhone cradle, phone and app, it has the same level of diagnostic accuracy as a $50,000 machine, according to Brian Cunningham, a professor at the University of Illinois, who developed it with his students (see video).

Using the phone’s camera and a series of optical components in the cradle, the machine detects the light spectrum passing through a liquid sample. By comparing the sample’s spectrum to spectrums for target molecules, such as toxins or bacteria, it’s possible to work out how much is in the sample. There you go, easy diagnosis.

Cunningham is yet to commercialize the device, and it isn’t very efficient: you can only work with one sample at a time, while an automated $50,000 machine could process up to 100. But potentially it could make spectrometry more portable. The expensive equipment weighs 50 pounds and "doesn’t go anywhere", as the professor puts it.

And, there’s no loss of accuracy. "We were using the same kits you can use to detect cancer markers, HIV infections, or certain toxins, putting the liquid into our cartridge and measuring it on the phone," Cunningham says. "We have compared the measurements from full pieces of equipment, and we get the same outcome."

Cunningham is currently filing a patent application and looking for investment. He also has a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an Android version.

He doesn’t think smartphone-based devices will replace standard spectrometry machines with long track records, and F.D.A approval. But they could enable more testing—for example, in developing countries that currently lack equipment, or among people who want to check their health regularly.

"In the future, it’ll be possible for someone to monitor themselves without having to go to a hospital. For example, that might be monitoring their cardiac disease or cancer treatment. They could do a simple test at home every day, and all that information could be monitored by their physician without them having to go in."