Smartphones can detect syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) thanks to a team developed by Samuel Sia, an engineering professor at Columbia University, New York. This research has been made possible with a grant from the Gates Foundation. Using a device, called a ‘dongle’, which plugs into the headphone jack of smartphones, it allows healthcare workers to test for syphilis, HIV, and other STDs with little or no electricity. Use of the ‘dongle’ also requires a smartphone application to generate the test results. The ‘dongle’ is a laboratory on a chip. There is a cassette that can only be used once with little channels as thin as a single human hair and a pump that is operated by a mechanical button which draws blood into the inlet through the channels. This chip also contains the data keeping it well protected.
A study was conducted with 96 pregnant women in Rwanda. These women were recruited by word-of-mouth and with the consent of the local clinics. Samuel Sia partnered with Sabin Nsanzimana, the division manager of the HIV and STIs at the Rwanda Bio-Medical Center and the Ministry of Health. This pilot study was successful. The smartphones and the ‘dongle’ attachment worked well for this particular study, delivering results that were nearly as accurate as standard enzyme-linked immunoassay testing. The test is delivered very simply using a smartphone and the attachment to detect STDs, mainly syphilis and HIV for this particular study. Training only takes 30 minutes using another smartphone application created by the engineering department at Columbia University.
Dr. Ambreen Khalil, an infectious disease specialist at Staten Island university Hospital, New York believes that this new smartphone technology that allows healthcare workers to detect antibodies found in STDs, is encouraging, but there are significant limitations, such as confirming the tests in laboratories. However, the test sensitivity of the smartphone and the ‘dongle’ is 92 percent to 100 percent which is the measurement of how often the test accurately identified target antibodies and the specificity range is 79 percent to 100 percent is an indicator of how well the test was able to rule out those who were not infected. The smartphones’ syphilis test only needs a sensitivity rating of 70 percent to 80 percent compared to a laboratory blood test which requires 100 percent. This would reduce syphilis deaths by thousands and increase early diagnoses with just smartphones and a simple, inexpensive attachment for these women to be able to get the proper treatment needed for syphilis or any STD.
According the World Health Organization (WHO), there are one-and-a-half million pregnant woman who are suffering from with probable active syphilis a year. and half of these women go untreated. If untreated syphilis can be passed onto the baby, cause a still birth, fetal loss or other birth conditions or defects. The smartphone ‘dongle’ can test for other STDs besides syphilis and HIV and non-STDs as well, however, “these [syphilis and HIV] are a priority because of the burden of disease and seriousness of disease, and how treatable they are.” States Samuel Sia. Sia also says that experts can look at cancer markers, hormone levels, disease markers and disabetic markers. She goes on to state that what is attempted to be offered is the idea of going beyond these accelerometers which track an individual’s movement. Sia believes that this will mark at point in time when the public sees the healthcare system fundamentally transformed for the better.
The United States is trending towards providing health services away from hospitals. Smartphones could possibly offer an easy, inexpensive, and private way for to test for syphilis, HIV or other STDs. Hospitals are large and expensive and for many things you should not have to be there, according to Samuel Sia. Dealing with diseases is about being proactive and preventative and with programs like the ‘dongle’ for smartphones, an individual could save a lot of money with more privacy and convenience.
By Jeanette Smith
The West Side Story
Photo Courtesy of Thomas Clzauskas – Flickr License
Photo Courtesy of IanFogg – Flicker License