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Essential Science: Turning smartphones into micro-laboratories

The idea of the medical professional, going out to remote areas and dragging large items of equipment is becoming a thing of the past due to advances with medical technology, particularly technology that is portable. A further advantage arises with equipment that has wireless or satellite-signal connectivity, enabling signals to be sent from the field to the hospital where larger systems can be used for diagnosis of specialist medics can take a look at images.

New smartphone diagnostic device

In keeping with this theme, a new development has been produced for the ubiquitous smartphone. This is in the field of remote health monitoring.

Scientists based University of Cincinnati have developed a smartphone accessory for improved medical diagnosis. This takes the form of a hardware add-on that resembles something around the size of a credit card.

Spit and microfluidics

To use the device, a patient is required to spit into a disposable single-use chip. This device is then connected by the supervising medic to the smartphone. Contained within the device are tiny microchannel capillaries. These capillaries draw the fluid sample towards an ultrasensitive optical detector. The detector has been calibrated to detect specific biomarkers. The presence of certain biomarkers is indicative of the potential presence of specific diseases.

A glass microprocessor made by Micronit Microfluidics.

A glass microprocessor made by Micronit Microfluidics.

The passage of fluid is based on microfluidics. This is concerned with the behavior, precise control, and manipulation of fluids, geometrically constrained to a small scale (typically sub-millimeter). This approach offers a key advantage in that it only requires miniscule amounts of samples and reagents, and by examining saliva this avoids the need to take a blood sample.

The diagnostic technology is a type of microchannel capillary flow assay platform. This platform is capable of performing a chemiluminescence based enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) assay, using with lyophilized chemiluminescent reagents.


Analysis of the sputum sample is undertaken using a customized application that generates results and then delivers them directly to the physician, either on the ground or remotely. Most clinical test assessments are delivered almost instantaneously.

Testing out the device

To explore how effective the bolt-on diagnostic device is, the research team took malarial infection as a model disease. The data that stemmed from this was the used to validate the instrumentation. Cross-companions were made with conventional blood tests, to look for the presence of the malarial causing parasites.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease, caused by a parasitic animal and spread by mosquitoes (where the parasite is transmitted through the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito).

Aedes aegypti mosquito on human skin.

Aedes aegypti mosquito on human skin.
USDA website

The results were shown to be both comparable and they were obtained far more quickly – a matter of minutes compare with what is often a matter of weeks for the processing and culturing of laboratory submitted samples.

By obtaining results about disease risk close to real-time, the medic in the field is able to make far faster decisions compared with the doctor far away in a city. This time saving can often be the difference between patient survival and death.

Providing an overview of the technology for the science news site Laboratory Roots, one of the lead scientists Professor Chong Anh explains: “The performance is comparable to laboratory tests. The cost is cheaper. And it’s user-friendly. We wanted to make it simple so anyone could use it without training or support.”

Next generation

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (in green)

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (in green)
C. Goldsmith / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Going forwards the device will continue to be upgraded and with this this the potential for the micro-capillary technology to expand for the detection of other diseases. These include, topically, coronaviruses, as well as HIV and Lyme disease.

Research paper

The development and testing of the device have been discussed in the journal Microsystems and Nanoengineering. The research paper is titled “A new microchannel capillary flow assay (MCFA) platform with lyophilized chemiluminescence reagents for a smartphone-based POCT detecting malaria.”

Essential Science

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue.

Cells in a petri dish

Cells in a petri dish

Last week we weighed in on a research study that considered the microbiome of the human gut and raised the idea that gut bacteria influence how the colon moves. With this insight medics can show how digestion is controlled along with offering new reasons for poor digestive health.

The week before we considered the different ways by which artificial intelligence is shaping medicine. Examples examined including AI helping to advance drug development and with machine learning aiding specialists with deciphering medical images.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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