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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Doctor in your pocket

One third of the world’s population lacks adequate access to healthcare or medicine. According to the mobile statistics company MobiThinking, nearly 90 percent of the world’s population has access to cell phones, many of which are smartphones. So how can we use the high number of cell phones to help increase the number of people with access to healthcare? Without physical access to healthcare, virtual access will become the new standard.
Researchers at UCLA have recently devised a system that uses cell phone cameras to analyze blood samples and make diagnoses based on the image. The system builds upon an existing technology called Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs) which can each diagnose one disease based on a color-changing strip. The data can then be sent over the internet to a server where the location, time and illness of the user is mapped in real time onto Google Maps.
“Our technology brings in a universal RDT reader on the cellphone, which can be tailored for all possible diseases that RDTs work [for],” said Aydogan Ozcan, a professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at UCLA and the lead researcher on the project. “Since it is flexible, we anticipate that emerging RDTs will also be read using our universal reader.”
Traditional RDTs are read manually by eye and these by-eye diagnoses are prone to error, especially if the individual using them is unfamiliar with the technology. The cell phone reader has the potential to increase accuracy of a reading.
The universal RDT reader improves upon an already impressive technology. According to Katharine Abba at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the malaria-detecting RDTs correctly identify malaria 19 out of 20 times. The World Health Organization estimates that malaria alone kills 700,000 people annually, particularly in developing countries without access to proper medical care, so a test that can correctly identify it will allow for early treatment can potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives.
The new universal RDT reader weighs only 65 grams, about the same as three dollars in quarters, and uses a system of LED lights, a simple lens and two AAA batteries. Smartphones are able to load a program (an app) that will work with the device to analyze the data off of the RDTs.
Providing this new RDT reading technology to areas devoid of healthcare is far cheaper than flying in doctors to treat patients on an individual basis. Furthermore, since the data is collected using GPS-equipped cell phones, researchers on the server end will be able to track the locations at which the diseases are centered.
“The cell phone [and] Google Maps interface permits us to create a spatio-temporal map which will be a platform to track all RDT related activities worldwide,” Ozcan said.

This means that the researchers will not only know the location of each diagnosis, but they can monitor the progression of the disease over an area and track the response of the patient to therapy. If the universal RDT reader is unable to make a conclusive diagnosis, the digitized sample along with patient data can be sent to their server, where the sample can be further analyzed by a healthcare professional.

The universal reader is an application of ubiquitous technology set to solving a problem, but the system is not without its shortcomings. The universal RDT reader is most effective when used on smartphones due to their higher quality cameras, internet access and superior data processing capabilities. While smartphones do represent a quickly growing area of the cellphone market, they are not prevalent enough to the point where everyone in an undeveloped area will be able to take full advantage of the universal RDT reader system.
“We are working towards better integration with lower-end phones that are widely being used in developing countries,” Ozcan said.
Ultimately, Ozcan wants to scale up his project to work with hundreds of different RDTs and begin compiling huge datasets from all over the world. If this technology becomes available to the public, it could help prevent rampant spreading of disease and help authorities identify locations where medical care is most needed.

HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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