Researchers from Harvard University are conducting preliminary field trials in Delhi of a $25 diagnostic device which can detect a range of disorders in the human body and also pollutants in water, by simply pressing two buttons — one to select the test and the other to give the results.
The hand-held device, named uMED, is about the size of a pack of playing cards, weighs about 63 gm and is based on principles of electrochemical testing, inspired by a glucometer that measures blood sugar levels.
Apart from gathering diagnostic data for blood sugar levels, the device can test for factors to diagnose kidney and liver functions, detect a malaria antigen, and test for heavy metals in water. The device can also be used to transmit the diagnostic data to any mobile phone — for reference of a doctor in any part of the world.
In an email interview to The Sunday Express, Alex Nemiroski, the lead author of a paper on the device which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said, “We developed a hand-held device inspired by the simplicity of a blood-glucose monitor, but incorporated the electronics necessary to have the versatility of a commercial electrochemical analyzer.”
Nemiroski, who has a doctorate in Applied Physics, said, “Electrochemical analysis is particularly attractive because it enables the concentration of different chemicals to be directly converted into an electrical signal that can be accurately measured. This type of chemical analysis encompasses a very powerful set of techniques, most of which have been primarily used only in well-equipped laboratories and hospitals, with the important exception of blood glucose monitoring, using expensive instrumentation. Our primary motivation was to extend the power of these developed world techniques to solve problems in global health.”
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Researchers said the cost of production of the 10 cm x 2 cm uMED can be brought down further to below $10 in mass production. It took about two-and-a-half years to develop “the proof of concept” device in the Whitesides’ laboratory at the Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and the researchers have just applied for a patent in the US.
Researchers said the device has potential in both urban and rural areas in resource contained settings. “Our vision is that in the future, all routine biochemical tests can be performed using ultra-low-cost test strips for blood, saliva, or urine, and a single hand-held device that is both easy to use and inexpensive,” Nemiroski said.
“The other benefit is that data can be synchronized and uploaded to remote computers using any available cellphone, even when Internet or advanced mobile phones and networks are not available. This provides an opportunity not only to provide medical expertise remotely, but also to centralise the patient’s health records, and even track the spread of disease. We believe that the uMED could be used in many different locations, from South America to Africa, India, and South East Asia,” he said.
On the device’s utility, Nemiroski said, “The uMED detected blood-glucose with a precision equivalent to that of a commercial handheld glucometer, an indication that it can replace a glucometer. It measured the electrolytes sodium and potassium in urine samples over the clinically relevant range, indicating that it can be used for commonly performed clinical tests for electrolytes. The combined measurement of glucose and these electrolyte forms most of a basic metabolic panel that is often performed to screen for liver and kidney damage.”
He said the uMED detected a malaria antigen “within the clinically relevant range, indicating that this device could benefit researchers studying this disease, as well as aid in the development of other high sensitivity diagnostics”. “We believe technique can also be adapted to detect other types of diseases as well including Ebola, dengue and HIV,” he said.
In water samples, the uMED found heavy metals including lead, cadmium, and zinc. According to Nemiroski, together these tests — and the many others that are possible by electrochemical detection — “will likely cover all chemical tests routinely prescribed by doctors in well-resources clinics and labs”.
To send data, the uMED encodes information into audio tones, similar to a fax modem and transmits the data over the audio jack of a cellphone. “The user needs only to connect the uMED to the cellphone by an audio cable, and place a phone call to a remote database; the uMED takes care of the rest,” Nemiroski explained.
The researchers confirmed that field trials for the product had already begun in India, and they were “in the initial stages of conversation” with the government of India to have it incorporated into a public health programme.