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Diagnose Diseases With Your Smartphone

This new device relies on specific chemical interactions that form between a virus or bacteria and a disease-fighting antibody.

Your smartphone could be used to diagnose diseases, if research conducted by The University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering pans out.

The researchers' disease diagnostic system would offer results that could be read using only a smartphone and a $20 lens attachment, according to a press release.

This new device relies on specific chemical interactions that form between a virus or bacteria and a disease-fighting antibody -- and the ability to detect these chemical interactions quickly, cheaply and easily. The solution proposed by Jiming Bao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Richard Willson, Huffington-Woestemeyer Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, involves a simple glass slide and a thin film of gold with thousands of holes poked in it.

These holes measure about 600 nanometers each, and are key to the system: The device diagnoses an illness by blocking the light with a disease-antibody bond (and a few additional ingredients).

Think of it this way: You drag a gill net through the water, and when you lift it up, the little fish pass through while big ones are caught and stick in the net. The more fish stuck in the holes, the less light comes through when you hold the net up to the sun. That idea is similar to what happens when disease germs stick in the glass slide's nanoholes. Only in this case, the germs alone are too small to plug up the nanoholes; they must bind with an antibody that is known to grab onto only that specific germ.

What does all this have to do with your smartphone?

One of the advantages of this system is that the results can be read with simple tools, according to the press release. A basic microscope used in elementary school classrooms, Willson said, provides enough light and magnification to show whether the holes are blocked. With a few small tweaks, a similar reading could almost certainly be made with a phone's camera, flash and an attachable lens.

Though the basic science is there, major technical hurdles must be cleared before the system can be rolled out, Willson noted. One of the biggest challenges is finding a way to drive the bacteria and viruses in the sample down to the surface of the slide to ensure the most accurate results.

If those problems are overcome, however, the system would be an excellent tool for health-care providers in the field.

"There are a lot of situations where an affordable diagnostic tool that is simple to use and simple to interpret could be very useful," said Willson. "If both your disposables and your reader are cheap, that makes it a lot easier to extend your system out into the real world."

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.