Bake a lens out of a silicone polymer, and convert your smartphone into a pocket microscope, perfect for sending images of suspicious-looking moles to a laboratory if you live in a remote area. You may recall this award-winning Aussie invention from day 27 – but it turns out these days a smartphone can be much more than just a microscope. It can work as a miniature diagnostic lab.
If you have an infection, your body might produce antibodies to fight it. To test someone’s blood for a particular substance – such as an antibody – there is a popular lab test known as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay). An ELISA test works by exposing the blood sample to substances related to particular infections, and seeing whether there is a reaction. It is widely used to detect HIV, for example.
A machine able to carry out this test is costly, and needs to be operated in a fully-outfitted laboratory. However, a team of scientists at Columbia University have been working on ways to change that. The Sia Lab, run by Professor Samuel Sia, focuses on what is known as “point-of-care diagnostics” – building cheap, portable devices that can perform sophisticated medical tests in remote areas where a snazzy lab is simply not an option.
Recently they published a report in the journal Science Translational Medicine on the successful use of an invention that allows running an ELISA-type test on a smartphone accessory. Health-care workers in Rwanda took blood samples from 96 patients, and successfully performed diagnostics that only took 15 minutes to process. Prick a finger to draw a bit of blood, feed it to a plastic sample plate and load it into a handheld device, plugged into the headphone jack of an iPhone.
There’s an excellent video here that shows this plug-and-play smartphone diagnostic lab in action.
Access to reliable diagnostics, especially for sexually transmitted diseases, is vital in areas without fancy labs. The researchers estimate that this device would only cost roughly US$35 to produce.
Of course, it’s probably just a matter of time until this and similar devices will be available to paying hypochondriacs in the Western world, too. But I’m not too worried about that, because smartphone labs like this one can do a tremendous amount of good in areas where needed.