Eating safely can be a potentially dangerous proposition for those with allergies to nuts or gluten, given the ever-present threat of cross-contamination that can occur during food processing, manufacturing and transportation. While there are several large and complex products for detecting food allergens currently available, researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science sought to create a new device that could both streamline the allergen detection process and provide lab-quality sensitivity in a public setting. The result is the iTube, a device that attaches to a common cell phone.
According to Aydogan Ozcan, PhD, lead researcher and a UCLA associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, the iTube weighs less than two ounces and analyzes food samples in about 20 minutes using a test tube–based allergen-concentration test known as a colorimetric assay. The iTube attachment uses the cell phone's built-in camera, along with an accompanying smart-phone application that runs a test with the same high level of sensitivity a laboratory would.
“Initially food samples are ground up and mixed with hot water and an extraction solvent in a test tube, which is then allowed to set for several minutes,” he explained. “The prepared sample is then mixed following a step-by-step procedure with a series of other reactive testing liquids.
“When the sample is ready, it is then measured optically for allergen concentration through the iTube platform using the cell phone’s camera and a smart application running on the phone,” he continued. “The kit digitally converts raw images from the cell-phone camera into concentration measurements detected in food samples. And beyond just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer as to whether allergens are present, the test can also quantify how much of an allergen is in a sample, in parts per million.”
The UCLA team successfully tested the iTube using commercially available cookies, analyzing the samples to determine if they had any harmful amount of peanuts. Their research was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Lab on a Chip.
Dr. Ozcan said the iTube’s ability to test for a variety of allergens, including peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts, builds upon his team’s previous cell phone-based detection technology which demonstrated the ability to distinguish other potentially dangerous food contaminants such as E.coli and other harmful bacteria.
“We envision that this cell phone–based allergen testing platform could be very valuable, especially for parents, as well as for schools, restaurants and other public settings,” Dr. Ozcan said. “Once successfully deployed in these settings, the big amount of data—as a function of both location and time—that this platform will continuously generate would indeed be priceless for consumers, food manufacturers, policymakers and researchers, among others.”
He added that allergen-testing results of various food products, tagged with a time and location stamp, could be uploaded directly from cell phones to iTube servers to create personalized testing archives, which could provide additional resources for allergic individuals around the world. “A statistical allergy database, coupled with geographic information, could be useful for future food-related policies—for example in restaurants, food production and for consumer protection,” he said.
While the technology is not yet commercially available, Holomic LLC, a Los Angeles, CA-based start-up company founded by Dr. Ozcan, is aiming to commercialize, though the timeline and cost are as yet undetermined. Holomic LLC was formed in 2011 to commercialize advanced BioPhotonics technologies invented by Dr. Ozcan at UCLA. Among the applications that have emerged from the lab is a cellphone-based diagnostic test reading technology called HRDR that’s ideal for point-of-care, telemedicine and public health monitoring; and LUCAS (Lensfree Ultra wide-field Cell Monitoring Array Platform based on Shadow Imaging) which essentially enables users to turn their smartphone camera into a portable microscope.
In addition to his work at Holomic, Dr. Ozcan helms UCLA’s Ozcan BioPhotronics Lab and the Ozcan BioPhotronics Research Group. He holds 22 issued patents with another 15 pending patent applications for his inventions in nanoscopy, wide-field imaging, lensless imaging, nonlinear optics, fiber optics and optical coherence tomography.