Antibiotics resistance delayed? Clever mobile diagnostics device designed

29 Nov 2016

Ulster University’s Prof Jim McLaughlin. Image: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University

In the ongoing pursuit to ward off antibiotic resistance, researchers at Ulster University have developed a new mobile diagnostics device that works on the spot.

Currently, if people fear they have developed bacterial infections such as strep throat or a urinary tract infection, antibiotics are often the answer.

However, this is creating a major problem, with widespread overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics (for example in cases of cold or flu) building up our immunity, expected to eventually lead to antibiotic resistance.

According to the World Health Organisation, this practice is a primary concern. Thankfully, a new saliva-testing device developed by Ulster University experts is aiming to help to tackle this healthcare crisis.


The handheld device is linked to a smartphone app and examines a patient’s clinical sample, sending results to the patient’s phone. The information provided helps them to identify if they have a bacterial infection that requires antibiotic treatment, or simply a viral infection, which cannot be cured by antibiotics.

As well as identifying bacterial infection, the team claims its device can diagnose a range of health conditions including anaemia, atrial fibrillation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, HIV, hypertension, leukocytosis, otitis media, pneumonia and sleep apnea.

Prof Jim McLaughlin, lead researcher on the project, said he and his colleagues have spent three years developing the tool, with the finished device now able to report on patients’ vitals.

Ulster University XPrize Strep Throat device. Image: Ulster University

Ulster University XPrize Strep Throat device. Image: Ulster University

Blood pressure, heart rate and temperature measurements, for example, allow the device to accurately diagnose 13 health conditions, including a range of bacterial infections.

“Many GPs prescribe antibiotics due to patient pressure or because they want to eliminate a potential bacterial infection, and want to take action before waiting for test results,” said McLaughlin.

“However, this provides no relief to patients if the issue is in fact originating from a virus, and enhances the potential for the development of antibiotic resistance, which is significantly increasing healthcare costs across the globe.”

The device requires no training – a major benefit according to McLaughlin – meaning there’s no need to liaise with costly medical professionals until necessary.

“The smartphone app provides a doctor-in-your-pocket solution, taking the user through a number of steps and tests to diagnose infection and subsequently offering guidance on treatment,” he said.

“The infection-based tests help patients self-manage their symptoms and could aid in the reduction of unnecessary GP appointments and prescription of antibiotics.”

The device was developed as part of a $10m competition run by Qualcomm, where the Ulster University team has reached the final five, out of 350 entrants.

“Regardless where we place in the competition, the team has created a viable consumer-focused diagnostic device and the next step will be to explore commercialisation of this technology,” said McLaughlin, with the winning team to be named in February 2017.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic