Is That Burger Safe to Eat? Your Smartphone Will Soon Be Able to Tell You

Personal Health

When you tuck into your burger, take a bite of a juicy strawberry or enjoy some cookie dough from the freezer, there's a chance you could be biting off more than you can chew—about one in 10 people around the world gets a foodborne illness every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. alone, 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die from foodborne illnesses every year.

But we all have to eat, which means taking risks. Traditional tests for food poisoning pathogens can take days to produce results, making them suitable only for identifying the cause of an outbreak. Wouldn't it be great if it was possible to test food samples on the spot for dangerous pathogens and avoid food poisoning altogether?

This might soon be possible, thanks to MIT scientists, who have come up with a way to detect dangerous bacteria using a smartphone. The test uses a new kind of droplet the researchers have designed to attach to bacterial proteins. The droplets are made up of two different halves – one made of a fluorocarbon and one made of a hydrocarbon. When viewed from above, the droplets are transparent, but from the side they are opaque.

The team put the droplets in a petri dish, on top of a QR code. When the target bacteria are present—in this case a dangerous strain of E. coli—the droplets clump together around the bacteria and face the same direction, making the code unreadable.

"It's a brand new way to do sensing," commented Timothy Swager, John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT and senior author of a study that presents the new test, published in ACS Central Science. "What we have here is something that can be massively cheaper, with low entry costs."

It's the latest in a wave of healthcare tools being developed for smartphones that put the power back in the patient's hands. You can already use a smartphone to check your sperm count and diagnose anemia, and Apple is reportedly working on a non-invasive glucose test for diabetics.

Researchers at the Biosensors & Bioelectronics Centre at Linköping University in Sweden have created one such device: a credit card-sized printed sensor that can be used to analyze blood and saliva samples at the touch of a button, sending the results straight to your smartphone.

"When I started doing electrochemistry 30 years ago, an instrument like this would have been the size of a filing cabinet, and would have cost me €10,000," said Anthony Turner, head of the Center (that's about $11,800).

Now cheap and simple to use, this kind of technology is making personalized healthcare so accessible that as patients we might never have contact with a doctor—we could order a printed diagnostic kit online to do a blood test at home, read the results on a smartphone app and use one-touch ordering to have the medicines sent to us directly.

The MIT foodborne pathogens test takes a step further back, to prevention. The intention is that it will be available at low cost to factory workers to check the food before it hits the shelves, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the technology could one day be in the hands of consumers, giving us the power to avoid food poisoning.

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