IPhones and Droids could speed medical tests, cut costs

Patients may soon be able to cut health care costs by running blood tests off their iPhones and Droids and having the results automatically forwarded to their doctors, according to new discoveries by researchers at the University of Rhode Island.

The next generation of lab-on-a-chip technology would use the processing power of smartphones in conjunction with small peripheral blood-analysis devices to determine whether, for example, a blood sample indicates a patient has cardiovascular disease, researchers say.

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Patients would pick up the gear at a drug store and run the test themselves without a doctor's visit, or the tests could be done in a medical office by medical staff, says Mohammad Faghri, the lead researcher and a professor of mechanical engineering at the school.

That's where the technology is headed, but the current functional models are more like a lab-in-a-shoebox that consists of a cartridge slightly smaller than a credit card for handling blood samples and a sensor device for measuring the reaction between blood samples and reagents that reveals whether the blood contains antibodies indicative of a particular disease, Faghri says.

The shoebox-sized sensor contains a spectrometer for measuring fluorescence from the reaction of antigens and antibodies, and that data is entered via USB cable to a computer, which analyzes it, Faghri says.

This generation of the technology can reduce the cost of tests from between $45 and $85 to $1.50 per test, he says. It reduces the weight of the sensor from 200 kg to 1.5 kg, he says.

The technology being worked on is smaller still. With it, the smartphone takes the place of the computer for analyzing the data, and a much smaller device - about the size of a cell phone - replaces the shoebox-sized sensor, he says.

Reducing the size of the sensor depends on replacing the spectrometer with the same technology that is used in smartphone cameras, known as a charge-coupled device or CCD, which takes light and converts it to electrical charge that is stored digitally. The smaller sensor would be fitted with a filter that would look for a particular wavelength of fluorescence, says Constantine Anagnostopoulos, a professor of mechanical engineering at URI who is working on that part of the new device.

An application on the smartphone would analyze the data from the sensor and automatically send the analysis to a database in the doctor's office, where the doctor would use the information to determine treatment, he says.

The technology cuts the time it takes to get results from four days to somewhere between five minutes and 20 minutes, Faghri says.

Faghri says he is confident the technology can be developed further to shrink it for smartphone use in a year or so. Currently the equipment has been configured to look for heard and peripheral artery disease, but it could be tuned to perform other tests, the researchers say.

Funding for the research is from the National Science Foundation through its Partnership for International Research and Education Program.

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