Researchers develop low-cost smartphone device for quick HIV and syphilis screening

Researchers at Columbia University are developing a $34 smartphone dongle to screen for HIV and syphilis.--Courtesy of Samiksha Nayak for Columbia University

As devicemakers home in on cheap, rapid diagnostics for patients in developing nations, researchers are creating a low-cost smartphone device to quickly test for infectious diseases in poor countries.

Scientists at New York's Columbia University are touting promising results for a "diagnostic dongle" that attaches to a smartphone to diagnose diseases such as HIV and syphilis. Researchers tested the device on 96 patients in Rwanda, and found that it correctly identified HIV and syphilis infections 92% to 100% of the time and yielded specificity of 79% to 100%. The dongle provided results in 15 minutes, rivaling times for traditional testing methods, scientists said in study results published this week in Science Translational Medicine.

The device also offers a more cost-effective model than traditional lab equipment. The researchers' smartphone attachment runs at $34, while top-of-the-line lab-based testing equipment costs about $18,450, Bloomberg reports.

But the dongle's main selling point could be its ease of use. The device includes disposable plastic cassettes and can screen for infections from a single finger prick. Results are displayed on a smart device's screen, and a smartphone or iPod can be used as a power source. Almost all of the patients included in the trial--97%--said they preferred the device to traditional lab tests, pointing to its convenience and quick results.

Columbia researchers are not the only ones developing cheap diagnostic tools that run on smartphones. Scientists at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. last year unveiled a new mobile app that uses a smartphone to measure colorimetric tests, providing quick diagnoses for conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and urinary tract infections.

Harvard researchers are also hard at work on an inexpensive, hand-held device that can monitor diabetes, detect malaria and analyze drinking water. The device, which is being tested in India, resembles glucose-monitoring units and can send data through mobile phones to physicians across the globe.

- here's the study abstract
- get the Columbia University report
- read the Bloomberg story

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