Smart phone innovation speeds up infection testing

Monday, May 7, 2018

Researchers at Washington State University have developed a portable laboratory on a phone that works almost as well as clinical laboratories in detecting common viral and bacterial infections.

The revolutionary equipment could lead to faster, cost-effective lab results for fast-moving viral and bacterial epidemics. It is thought the device could prove to be particularly effective in rural and lower-resource regions where medical equipment and personnel may not be on hand all the time.

“This smartphone reader has the potential to improve access and speed up healthcare delivery,” said Dr Lei Li, lead researcher and assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “If we find out about infections, we can treat them more quickly, which makes a difference especially in low-resource, remote areas.”

Doctors in these areas must sometimes rely on a patient’s symptoms or use their own judgement in looking at test sample colour results to determine whether a patient has an infection. As expected, this process is often inaccurate. If they send results off to a lab in a distant city, the doctors sometimes must wait for days — by which time the infection may have become widespread. Most existing mobile health diagnostic devices, meanwhile, can only analyze one sample at a time.

The WSU researchers found that their portable smartphone reader worked nearly as well as standard lab testing in detecting 12 common viral and bacterial infectious diseases, such as mumps, measles, herpes, and Lyme Disease. The researchers tested the device, which is about the size of a hand, with 771 patient samples at Hospital of University of Pennsylvania and found that it provided false positives only about one per cent of the time.

The smartphone reader, which includes a portable device, takes a photo of 96 sample wells at once and uses a computer program to carefully analyze color to determine positive or negative results.

The research team was able to build the device for about $50 (US), but they believe the manufacturing cost would be even less. They have filed a patent and hope to move forward with clinical trials that could lead to commercialization.

Led by Dr Li, the team have published their work in the journal, Clinica Chimica Acta. Collaboration with Ping Wang, associate professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, enabled the design and implementation of the key clinical validation study.

The work was supported by a WSU fund to support entrepreneurial endeavors.

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