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The device is operated by measuring the pressure change produced by oxygen (O2) generation in a limited chamber using a portable barometer. (Credit: ACS Sensors)

When it comes to testing for cancer, traditional sensors can help. The challenges are that they often are bulky, expensive, nonintuitive, and complicated. Now, one team reports that portable pressure-based detectors coupled with smartphone software could provide a simpler, more affordable alternative while still maintaining sensitivity.

Current disease and contamination sensors require expensive readout equipment or trained personnel. The researchers propose a new detection system based on pressure changes. For example, when a disease biomarker is present, it causes a chain reaction in the device that results in oxygen being released and pressure building. The pressure changes are measured by a portable barometer, and smartphone software provides an easy readout of the results.

To show the versatility of the pressure sensor, the team tested a variety of applications. Prototypes could detect carcinoembryonic antigen, a protein present in high levels in patients with colon or rectal cancer; ractopamine, which is an animal-feed additive banned in many countries; and thrombin, a cardiovascular disease marker. In addition, a mercury-ion sensor was developed for environmental pollution monitoring. The researchers say that because the results are immediately available with a smartphone, the method could enable real-time monitoring of environmental pollution, disease outbreaks and food safety.

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