A group of researchers and students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found a way to employ a mobile phone's camera and processing power to serve as a biosensor to quickly detect toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses and other molecules that we might want to avoid.

The ability to have such high-tech sensing capabilities in a mobile device could allow for immediate testing of everything from groundwater contamination to pathogens. On a broader scale, it could deliver quick diagnostic results and tracking for researchers on the field; at the consumer level, it could analyze food for the detection of allergens for those suffering from severe allergies.

Which is where peanut allergies come in.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 3 million American children under the age of 18 have some type of food allergy; the most prevalent of which is an allergy to peanuts.

Reactions from food allergens run the gamut from minor to fatal, as was tragically evidenced by the recent death of 13-year old Natalie Giorgi. Despite spitting out the mistaken peanut-laden bite of dessert and being treated with three epinephrine injections, she died later in the evening from a severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

A device like the mobile phone biosensor would allow parents to analyze a sample of a food for any traces of peanut or other allergens; and the entire process only takes a few minutes.

And fortunately, no science degree or lab experience is required; the app walks the user through the test step by step.

Although the cradle holds only about $200 of optical components, it performs as accurately as a large $50,000 spectrophotometer in the laboratory, phys.org reports.

"We're interested in biodetection that needs to be performed outside of the laboratory," said team leader Brian Cunningham, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering at the University of Illinois.

"Smartphones are making a big impact on our society – the way we get our information, the way we communicate. And they have really powerful computing capability and imaging,” Cunningham says. “A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones. They can detect molecular things, like pathogens, disease biomarkers or DNA, things that are currently only done in big diagnostic labs with lots of expense and large volumes of blood."

The researchers are currently working on improving the manufacturing process for the cradle component and are creating a version for Android phones as well. They hope that the cradles will be available by next year.

See the app and cradle combo in action in the AP video below:

Related allergy stories on MNN:

Peanut allergies app turns iPhone into biosensor
Researchers have created an app and cradle that could soon enable your iPhone to run on-the-spot tests without a lab.