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New tool allows smartphones to diagnose diseases

Teresa Tanoos's picture
U.S. team develops smartphone device that can diagnose diseases.

Your smartphone may soon be like having a doctor in your back pocket, thanks to a new tool in development that uses a nanotechnology bio-sensing system to help diagnose diseases.

Although the disease diagnostic system is not yet available, U.S. researchers are optimistic that it will end up being a low-cost diagnostic tool that requires only a smartphone and a $20 lens attachment to read results.

At the heart of the new system – created by Professors Jiming Bao and Richard Wilson from the University of Houston in Texas – is a bio-sensing device with a basic microscope that can interpret the results. The team recently wrote a report about the system that has been published in the journal ACS Photonics.

By bringing nanotechnology to the smartphone, the team explained how they created a bio-sensing method combining optical transmission of nanoholes with silver staining. Like other diagnostic tools for detecting disease, the method they developed works by detecting a chemical reaction that results when a pathogen, such as a virus or bacterium, comes into contact with a molecule and bonds to it.

For example, using the new diagnostic system on someone with strep throat would confirm the diagnosis by sensing and showing when a strep bacterium reacts with a distinctive anti-strep antibody.

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As for the bio-sensing device, the team reached a technological achievement by developing a thin glass slide with transparent nanoholes that can be filled with bacteria and viruses. As a result, the nanoholes let light pass through them, setting the stage for bacteria and viruses to populate them, while allowing the chemical reactions to take place inside the holes.

After a couple of attempts, the Houston team managed to work around some challenges to get the device to show when antibodies attached to any bacteria or viruses in the holes, which brought them one step closer to finalizing the diagnostic tool they set out to create.

All they needed was a simple microscope that could view the holes so they could see the ones that didn’t let light through. Along with the smartphone camera and flash, they attached a lens that became a microscope.

Interestingly, more advanced diagnostic tools can require around $200,000 worth of additional equipment in order to read results, but Prof. Willson pointed out that the tool they created can be added to a smartphone you already have for only $20 “and you’re done.”

Both Professors Wilson and Boa admit they still have work to do before the system can be made available, but they remain optimistic that they will eventually be able to provide health care professionals in the field of diagnostics with a quick, portable, inexpensive and reliable method for detecting diseases on their smartphones.

SOURCE: Transmissive Nanohole Arrays for Massively-Parallel Optical Biosensing, Yanan Wang, Archana Kar, Andrew Paterson, Katerina Kourentzi, Han Le, Paul Ruchhoeft, Richard Willson, Jiming Bao, ACS Photonics, DOI: 10.1021/ph400111u, published online February 6, 2014.