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Inside the Lab Technology and innovation, Oncology, Analytical science, Point of care testing, Precision medicine, Clinical care, Laboratory management

Tiny Testing

In the hunt for better diagnostics, the game is always afoot. We want them fast, cheap, accurate and portable – attributes that aren’t always easy to combine into a single device. But now, a group of researchers think they may have cracked the code with a new “smartphone laboratory” (1) designed to detect the cancer biomarker interleukin-6 (IL-6).

A diagram of the smartphone laboratory in action. (Credit: Washington State University.)


A Washington State University research group in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. The project is led by Lei Li, an assistant professor with an interest in diagnostics and precision engineering.


A portable, eight-channel spectrometer that works with an iPhone 5. By using 3D-printed accessories and a newly developed manufacturing process, the researchers were able to bring the cost of the device down to less than US$150.


Current smartphone spectrometers are single-channel, meaning that they can only analyze one sample at a time. That makes them slow if multiple samples are tested, or risks decreasing accuracy if users examine only one or a few samples. Running eight samples at once allows the WSU scientists’ device to not only work more efficiently, but also deliver results with up to 99 percent accuracy – as good as laboratory-based tests. This is especially useful for pathologists working in remote or resource-limited settings, where full laboratory setups may not be available.


The spectrometer runs ELISA tests, using spectrometry to measure the change in color as antibodies in the assay react to IL-6 in the samples. IL-6 is a known biomarker for numerous cancers, including lung, liver, breast, prostate and epithelial – so its presence in a sample indicates a potential malignant tumor.

What next?

Li is working on a newer version of the device that can be adjusted to work with any model of smartphone. In the meantime, he and his colleagues are testing the existing device in real-world situations to see how it might perform in the field.

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  1. LJ Wang et al., “A multichannel smartphone optical biosensor for high-throughput point-of-care diagnostics”, Biosens Bioelectron, 87, 686–692 (2016). PMID: 27631683.
About the Author
Michael Schubert

While obtaining degrees in biology from the University of Alberta and biochemistry from Penn State College of Medicine, I worked as a freelance science and medical writer. I was able to hone my skills in research, presentation and scientific writing by assembling grants and journal articles, speaking at international conferences, and consulting on topics ranging from medical education to comic book science. As much as I’ve enjoyed designing new bacteria and plausible superheroes, though, I’m more pleased than ever to be at Texere, using my writing and editing skills to create great content for a professional audience.

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