Picture yourself ordering a salad at a restaurant, and then using your phone or smartwatch to test the ingredients for harmful bacteria or allergens.

That prospect might soon become a reality. Engineers at Rutgers University have developed biosensor technology — dubbed “lab on a chip” — that could be used to monitor your health and exposure to dangerous molecules from a portable or wearable device.

Imagine a watch that continuously samples blood or saliva for different types of molecules, and continuously studies a person's health.- Mehdi Javanmard, Rutgers University

“The purpose of it is to be able to detect multiple types of biomolecules simultaneously,” Mehdi Javanmard told Olive Oil Times. Javanmard is an assistant professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and was the project’s principal investigator.

“There are different types of organisms, bacteria or viruses that could contaminate food,” he said. “You would want to be able to detect those all at once. That’s basically what this technology does. It allows you to take a small sample and do tests simultaneously.”

The fact this is achieved with the use of a chip means it could be packaged in a compact gadget.

“You don’t have to do this in a big lab,” Javanmard said. “Now you can do things with an instrument that you can wear or carry around with you and plug into a phone.”

A study of the technology was recently written up in a journal published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

It involves issuing an electronic bar code to microparticles so that they may be distinguishable. This allows for specific molecules to be identified.

For example, in the context of food allergens, “there’s not just one type of allergen as each one has a different protein or toxin associated with it,” Javanmard said. “This barcoding technique means the user can test for multiple proteins.”

The practical applications for the technology extend far beyond monitoring food.

“Environmental monitoring is also important,” Javanmard said. “Imagine you’re looking for virus molecules, toxins, bacteria in different environments. Your kids are playing in the playground during wintertime, and there’s a bunch of sick kids around. You want to make sure the slides and the various toys that are there are not contaminated.

“There’s also health monitoring. Imagine having a watch that continuously samples blood or saliva for different types of molecules, and continuously studying a person’s health.”

That last one may be particularly crucial when assessing the status of a patient.

“In order to give a prescription that has a high chance of being accurate, it’s necessary to have comprehensive information about the patient at a molecular level,” Javanmard said. “When you have tools that allow for continuous monitoring for not just one just one biomolecule, but 20 different key molecules simultaneously, this allows you to obtain an understanding of what’s going on physiologically inside the body at a much higher level compared to the capabilities we have right now.”

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