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Mobile app tests blood for HIV, syphilis

Professor Sia’s team’s work is published in Science Tranlational Medicine

A new smartphone app that tests blood samples for HIV and syphilis in just 15 minutes could save millions of lives across the world, scientists claim.

The software, developed by biomedical experts at Columbia University, analyses blood samples taken with a finger-prick dongle.

The kit, which attaches to any smartphone or computer, replicates a lab test and can give a diagnosis in the field in just 15 minutes.

The device is nearly 540 times cheaper than current lab testing machines, and has already been tested on patients in Rwanda during a pilot study.

Health workers tested the blood of 96 patients who were enrolling into clinics aimed at preventing transmission of HIV from mother to child, or those visiting voluntary counselling and testing centres.

The dongle was developed to be small and light enough to fit in one hand.

It draws its power from the smartphone allowing it to be used in remote areas, providing the phone is charged.

Samuel Sia, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, said the team’s work showed that full laboratory-quality tests can be run on a smartphone app.

This makes a diagnosis accessible to almost any population with access to smartphones.

‘This kind of capability can transform how health care services are delivered around the world,’ he added.

In the past, Professor Sia’s team has worked on creating miniature testing kits for syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

He said: ‘We know that early diagnosis and treatment in pregnant mothers can greatly reduce adverse consequences to both them and their babies.’

The new kits are expected to cost around £22.50 to manufacture, compared with the £12,150 cost of a standard lab testing machine.

In Rwanda, healthcare workers were given 30 minutes of training and 97% of patients said they would recommend the device.

This was because of its fast turnaround time, ability to offer results for multiple diseases and the simplicity of procedure.

Professor Sia said: “Our dongle presents new capabilities for a broad range of users, from health care providers to consumers.

“By increasing detection of syphilis infections, we might be able to reduce deaths by 10-fold.

‘And for large-scale screening – where the dongle’s high sensitivity with few false negatives is critical – we might be able to scale up HIV testing at the community level with immediate antiretroviral therapy.

“This could nearly stop HIV transmissions and approach elimination of this devastating disease.

“We are really excited about the next steps in bringing this product to the market in developing countries.

“And we are equally excited about exploring how this technology can benefit patients and consumers back home.”

Professor Sia’s team’s work is published in Science Tranlational Medicine.

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