Washington State University researchers have developed a low-cost, portable laboratory on a smartphone that can analyze several samples at once to catch a cancer biomarker, producing lab-quality results.1

Led by Lei Li, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, the WSU research team created an eight-channel smartphone spectrometer that can detect human interleukin-6 (IL-6), a known biomarker for breast, epithelial, liver, and lung cancers. A spectrometer analyzes the amount and type of chemicals in a sample by measuring its light spectrum.

Although smartphone spectrometers exist, they only monitor or measure a single sample at a time, making them inefficient for real-world applications. Li’s multichannel spectrometer can measure up to eight different samples at once using a colorimetric enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, identifying antibodies and color changes as disease markers.

Although Li’s group has only used the smartphone spectrometer with standard lab-controlled samples, their device has been up to 99% accurate. The researchers are now applying their portable spectrometer in real-world situations.

Lei Li, PhD, Washington State University.

Lei Li, PhD, Washington State University.

“With our eight-channel spectrometer, we can put eight different samples to do the same test, or one sample in eight different wells to do eight different tests,” says Li, who has filed a provisional patent for the work. “This increases our device’s efficiency.

“The spectrometer would be especially useful in clinics and hospitals that have a large number of samples without onsite labs, or for doctors who practice abroad or in remote areas,” he continues. “They can’t carry a whole lab with them. They need a portable and efficient device.”

Li’s design works with an iPhone 5. He is creating an adjustable design that will be compatible with any smartphone.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and a WSU startup fund. It is in keeping with WSU’s Grand Challenges, a suite of research initiatives aimed at large societal issues.

For more information, visit Washington State University.


  1. Wang LJ, Chang YC, Sun R, et al. A multichannel smartphone optical biosensor for high-throughput point-of-care diagnostics. Bioelectron. 2016;87:686–692; doi: 10.1016/j.bios.2016.09.021.