Using Smartphones to Diagnose Disease

NetraG

Engineers are taking advantage of the flexibility of apps and the computing power of smartphones to replicate the functions of medical devices and even laboratory instruments.

Smartphone based medical apps started to proliferate two years ago. Handy integrated devices like the $129 Withings blood pressure monitor simplified the process of tracking personal health. This year, the level of sophistication of as taken a significant leap.

Take for instance the NetraG from Massachusetts-based EyeNetra. The company, which develops mobile diagnostic tools to aid eye-care, is working on manufacturing an effective diagnostic system using plastic lenses mounted on a smartphone. By replacing autorefractors—the expensive medical devices optometrists use to prescribe glasses—EyeNetra says it can cut eye-care costs by thousands of dollars.

The device works by determining how accurately a person’s eyes focus on light. Placing the NetraG viewer against a smartphone screen displaying colored lines, the user spins a dial to align the sets of lines. The app calculates the inaccuracy in the person’s focus and prescribes corrective lenses. It can diagnose near-sightedness, far-sightedness and astigmatism.

Eyenetra, which was started by Vitor Pamplona, a MIT graduate student from Brazil, hopes to transform eye-care in the developing world by giving consumers cheap, easily administered eye exams.

In the United States, only optometrists can write prescriptions for vision correction. But in areas of the world with fewer regulations like India, which has 300 million people with impaired vision and relatively few optometrists, Eyenetra could make a big difference by providing affordable care.

Eyenetra is signing partnership agreements with various Indian eye-related enterprises, and last month it demonstrated working models of its product at an MIT introductory session for freshmen.

Meanwhile, Scanadu, a California-based company, is connecting smartphone technology with EKG monitors, blood-pressure sensors, and thermometers to provide patients feedback on their vital signs. Scanadu’s $199 cookie-sized electronic puck can be pressed to the forehead to collect data that is then transmitted to a smartphone for analysis.

Walter de Brouwer, a Belgian engineer and founder of Scanadu, predicts that empowering patients with their own devices to monitor their vital signs will transform healthcare.

“We have never had access to this kind of information before,” say de Brouwer, who hopes that sensing abnormalities in blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels with the device will prompt patients to take corrective action before a heart attack or stroke occurs.

Scanadu has certainly attracted public attention. Using the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo, it raised $1.6 million last summer, a record at the time.

In the Midwest, University of Illinois researchers are using a smartphone camera and its processing power to perform sophisticated laboratory-equivalent tests for allergens, pathogens, and toxins in food or soil.

The device consists of an app and an attachment to the phone that the team calls a “cradle.” This wedge-shaped attachment that fits on the back of the phone contains optical components, lenses and filters, and a compartment where a sample is placed. It is positioned to allow the phone’s camera to measure the spectrum of light coming through the sample and into the camera, and provides a result in just a few minutes.

According to the University of Illinois team, the cradle provides a result as accurate as from a $50,000 lab spectrophotometer at a fraction of the cost, and it can easily be carried around for field tests.

“A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones,” said Brian T. Cunningham, professor of bioengineering at University of Illinois, in a telephone interview.

The new device, which isn’t likely to be used for medical diagnostics in the U.S. because of regulatory challenges, has promising applications in developing world countries where it could be used to test for iron or vitamin A deficiency in pregnant women, without the need of sending samples to a distant lab.

Cunningham says the device could also be used in veterinary medicine to test large animals without needing to send samples out to laboratories. Another use might be to test racehorses for illegal painkillers at tracks. Environmental scientists could identify toxins and certain pollutants in soil and water samples.

With this technology, Cunningham says, “you can detect molecular things, like pathogens, disease biomarkers, or DNA, things that are currently only done in big diagnostic labs with lots of expense and large volumes of blood.”

Cunningham is currently negotiating with potential partners, and a prototype product might be ready within a year.

Photo Credit: Andrew Thomas Ryan, Tangible Media Group, MIT

About Bill Bulkeley

A freelance writer, based in Boston, covering business and technology topics. Worked for 30-plus years for the Wall Street Journal watching the dynamics of capitalism from the creation of the PC and the Internet to the demise of the minicomputer and photo film.
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