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How Smartphones Could Transform Mobile Medical Lab Testing

Columbia University researchers have built "dongles" that turn typical smartphones into mobile blood sampling labs. The possibilities of such devices could be limitless.

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An iPhone connected to a special "dongle" that turns the phone into a low-cost and mobile blood sampling laboratory is being used successfully to test the blood of sick patients in developing nations, bringing needed diagnostic services to people in remote areas.

Presently the devices, which were developed by researchers at Columbia University in New York City, are being used to diagnose HIV and syphilis in patients in Rwanda in the continent of Africa, at low cost and with high rates of reliability, according to a Feb. 6 report by The Los Angeles Times.

The dongle is a small handheld device that plugs into an iPhone and can diagnose HIV and syphilis in as little as 15 minutes, the story reported. Existing tests can take as long as 2.5 hours, and patients who are tested often don't stay around to see their results, which means they can't begin treatment if they are infected with the diseases, the report continued. The initial tests of the devices involved 96 patients in three community health centers in Kigali, Rwanda. A small blood sample is taken by the device, and it is then analyzed and tested. When testing is complete, the results are displayed on the iPhone's screen.

The devices use very little power because instead of drawing the patient's blood with a small electrical pump that could have been powered by the phone, the dongles use a squeezable rubber bulb to draw the blood using vacuum, according to the Times report. About 41 tests can be done using one charge on a phone. And as significant, the researchers estimate that the dongles would cost $34 each to build, as opposed to $18,450 for traditional lab equipment for such tests.

While these mobile lab testing devices were created to help health care workers test patients for life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases, all I could think about as I read about the devices was the promise of such devices and testing concepts for a myriad of other diseases and health issues around the world.

How about if dongles like these could be built and re-engineered for other kinds of testing as needed, such as malaria and Ebola?

And what about development of a handheld device that could test for the E. coli bacteria on fresh fruits and vegetables in the field or in prepared foods that are swabbed by such a device? Imagine how many people would avoid E. coli symptoms and horrors if such on-location and cost-effective testing were possible. The mother of a dear college friend of mine died in September 2006 after she ate fresh-bagged spinach that was infected with a virulent strain of E. coli. If testing with a specially equipped and inexpensive dongle could prevent another E. coli death, it would be a good thing.

The promise of these testing devices is amazing. I hope researchers are already dreaming up new ways to use them.