Mobile Device Makes Diagnostics accessible to Poor Areas

Posted September 19th, 2014 at 2:36 pm (UTC-4)
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A detector created by Harvard University researchers helps health care workers monitor disease and perform tests (Alex Nemiroski)

A detector created by Harvard University researchers helps health care workers monitor diabetes, detect malaria and environmental pollutants, and perform tests for a fraction of their cost today. (Alex Nemiroski)

Harvard University researchers looking to provide some of the world’s poorest countries with affordable health care solutions have come up with a detector that runs diagnostics with the click of a button and uses a cellphone to transmit the results.

The device costs about $25 per unit and probably less if mass-produced.

Alex Nemiroski, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology says the idea started a few years ago when the Whitesides Research Group to which he belongs began to develop electrochemical detection in a test-strip format, beyond models already available on the market. The team soon found that the process required expensive scientific instruments to interpret the results.

Analytical chemistry enables many sophisticated methods of detecting and measuring chemicals and biochemicals, says Nemiroski, though the need for expensive equipment, training, and resources such as labware, reagents and the like “makes the benefits of these technologies completely inaccessible for billions.”

The cost of lab equipment was not the only challenge. Training, medical expertise and centralized tracking are often lacking in resource-limited settings. “That’s where mobile health [mHealth] comes in,” Nemiroski added in an email interview.

‘Using remote diagnostics through mobile devices enables expertise to be decoupled from the site of testing,” he added.

Creating the desired product presented researchers with a dual challenge – electrochemical and technological. And Nemiroski says both had to be addressed for the device “to be actually useful to the people who we intend it for.”

“To solve the electrochemistry problem, we were inspired by the simplicity and popularity of blood-glucose meters and the versatility and accuracy of commercial electrochemical analyzers,” he said. “We believe our approach combines the strengths of both of these technologies, and avoids the weaknesses.”

On the technological side, Nemiroski says that with the rapid expansion of global cellphone use, telemedicine and mobile health, researchers knew that “connecting electrochemical sensing with the cloud would be a very powerful combination.”

“Unlike others working in this area—who typically focus on making widgets that require iPhone apps and 3G/4G networks—we decided, instead, to focus on a universal solution that is compatible with all generation of cellular technology,” he explained.

That means that the device would have to be compatible with low-end phones and 2G networks commonly used in many parts of the developing world.

“Any viable technology for resource-poor settings must be compatible with all generations of technology, [including] the low-end phones and 2G networks that nearly three billion people worldwide continue to use,” he said.

The resulting detector sends data over the voice channel of a cellphone. “That way,” says Nemiroski, “the data could be communicated regardless of the type of cellphone technology, network generation, operating system, or apps the user had access to.”

The device was put to the test in India in the summer, albeit in limited field tests. But Nemiroski says the response, both from clinics where the device was tested and the Indian media, has been very positive.

He says the goal of that experiment was to develop use cases and learn which aspects of the system – hardware, software or biochemical – need further research.

“We are now reviewing the feedback and planning the next phases of this project,” he said.

That remains to be determined. Nemiroski says researchers have not decided yet if commercialization is the immediate next step, or whether they would look to “further develop/improve the analytical capabilities in an academic setting first.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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