(Source: Columbia University)
Researchers from Columbia University have created a new mobile HIV and syphilis scanner that can be connected to smartphones

Columbia University biomedical engineers have created a $34 plastic smartphone attachment that is able to accurately identify HIV and syphilis antibodies. 

It takes only one pin-prick of blood -- similar to the kind diabetics draw daily to test blood sugar levels -- to use the dongle-style smartphone attachment.  The meter is compatible with Google Android smartphones and the Apple iPhone.  It plugs in via the 3.5 mm audio jack.

In terms of its testing functionality, the device is able to replicate the mechanical, optical and electronic functions of a traditional lab-based STD bloodwork analysis, and takes just 15 minutes to complete.

The inexpensive, mobile infectious disease scanner [Image Source: Columbia University]

All necessary power is drawn directly from the smartphone, a functionality researchers were careful to include.  Researchers say they chose a “one-push vacuum” instead of a power-consuming electrical pump, so users active a negative-pressure chamber to move the reagents pre-stored on a cassette.

testing device
A single pin-prick is needed before a scan can be done [Image Source: Columbia University]

The new medical diagnostic tool was used over two weeks at three health clinics in Kigali, Rwanda.  Researchers found it was just as effective as diagnostic tools already available commercially, with the same level of accuracy.

A study on the work was published in the AAAS journal Science Translational Medicine.  Columbia Biomedical Engineering Professor Samuel K. Sia, is the paper's first author and led the study.  In a university press release he describes the power of the device, stating:

This work demonstrates that a full laboratory-quality immunoassay can be run on a smartphone accessory.  This low-cost dongle replicates all mechanical, optical, and electronic functions of a laboratory-based enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) without requiring any stored energy; all necessary power is drawn from a smartphone.”

During testing, accuracy was on par with ELISA tests, but are significantly cheaper – and mobile – so they can be completed in remote villages and health clinics.

"This work is a proof of how technology can improve diagnosis and care, making it faster and simpler and cheaper without compromising the existing quality," said Sabin Nsanzimana, the Rwanda’s Ministry of Health manager of STDs.  Although "it may take time, or bigger studies" before additional knowledge of the dongle is known.

[Image Source: UFV Cascade]

Future mass production of the device, along with additional testing, could drive the price to levels conducive to mass adoption in the developing world.  Until then, a larger trial will be done, as researchers look to expand testing beyond HIV and syphilis

Ideally, researchers want to have more streamlined ability to detect AIDS in Africa and other developing regions.  Combined with new preventive therapies, faster detection regional health professional could slow the spread of infection among residents.

Fighting AIDS in Africa has become a worldwide collaborative effort, as 70 percent of years of life lost in 22 African nations can be tied back to infectious diseases and related conditions, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  

There is increased research into mobile health technologies that can be used in the field, especially in remote regions located in developing nations.  Scientists think that mobile devices could be leveraged to make it easier and more affordable for patients to receive higher-quality medical assistance.  This optimism does have one downside though -- the advent of mobile healthcare solutions raises the risk of exposure of patient medical records in data loss incidents, which will likely be a growing concern in the U.S. in years to come.

Sources: Science Translational Medicine [abstract], Columbia University BME [press release], MIT Technology Review

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