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iTube Detects Allergens via Cellphone

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 19, 2012 — Want to avoid blowing up like a balloon eating prepackaged food that may contain harmful food allergens? Well, thanks to a smartphone application that can test food samples for life-threatening allergens on the spot, you can do just that.

The lightweight device, called the iTube, was developed by Aydogan Ozcan and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, and attaches to a common cellphone. Using the phone’s built-in camera and accompanying smartphone application, the unit can test food samples with the same high level of sensitivity as would be done in a lab.

Aydogan Ozcan and colleagues at UCLA have developed the iTube platform (left), which attaches to a cellphone and uses colorimetric assays and a digital reader to detect allergens in food samples. (Right) A screen capture of the iTube App. Courtesy of UCLA Newsroom.

Food allergies are an ever-present public concern, affecting as many as 8 percent of young children and 2 percent of adults. Allergic reactions can be severe and even life-threatening. And while consumer-protection laws regulate the labeling of ingredients in prepackaged foods, cross-contamination can still happen during processing, manufacturing and transportation.

Many products to detect allergens are available, but they are complex and require bulky equipment, making them ill-suited for use in public settings, the UCLA researchers say.

The iTube was created to address these issues, said Ozcan, an associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at the university’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. The attachment, weighing less than 2 oz, analyzes a test-tube-based allergen-concentration test known as a colorimetric assay.

The device requires a little work to use, but the payoff is well worth it. First, users must grind up the food sample, put it in a test tube and mix it with chemicals, following instructions on the iTube app. The preparation process takes about 20 min. When the sample is ready, it is measured optically for allergen concentration through the iTube platform, using the cell phone’s camera and the smart app running on the phone.

The kit digitally converts raw images from the camera into concentration measurements detected in the food samples. The test not only can tell whether allergens are present, but can also quantify how much of an allergen is in a sample, in parts per million. It can test a variety of allergens, including peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts, Ozcan said.

The iTube app was successfully tested on commercially available cookies to determine if they had any traces of harmful nuts. The findings were reported in Lab on a Chip (doi: 10.1039/C2LC41152K).

“We envision that this cellphone-based allergen testing platform could be very valuable, especially for parents, as well as for schools, restaurants and other public settings,” 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.” Data can be uploaded directly to iTube servers to create personalized testing archives that can be useful to allergic individuals around the world.  

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