Smartphone gadget sequences DNA, could diagnose disease

18 Jan 2017

Working with a smartphone, the device can use different modes to display cell images. Image: UCLA/Stockholm University/Uppsala University

The latest trick smartphones can pull off might be diagnosing serious illnesses, with TB, Ebola and cancer in the crosshairs.

A relatively simple, 3D-printed mobile phone case may well be the latest evolution in diagnostic tools after a team of researchers discovered remarkable capabilities from new forms of cameras.

Developed by researchers at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA and at Sweden’s Stockholm University and Uppsala University, the camera attaches to the side of a phone case and can image and analyse specific DNA sequences and genetic mutations in tumour cells and tissue samples.

Diagnostics made simple

This is without even penetrating the skin, meaning it’s a fast, simple, non-intrusive tool that is adding to a wave of diagnostic advances in recent years.

The team behind the project, published in Nature Communications, said the new device could be made for less than $500 per unit – a snip in comparison to alternative tools.

“A typical microscope with multiple imaging modes would cost around $10,000, whereas higher-end versions, such as the one we used to validate our mobile-phone microscope, would go for $50,000 or more,” said UCLA’s Aydogan Ozcan, who led the research alongside Mats Nilsson, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics in Sweden.

Broad options

The molecular diagnostics achieved give hope for further achievements, perhaps even honing in on mutations that deal with TB and Ebola.

Rather than being tailored towards home use, the team claim this could help bring GP offices in line with hospitals, where waiting for access to machinery could prove particularly damaging.

The prototype is a lightweight optical attachment that can capture multicolour fluorescence and bright-field images at the same quality of those created by a traditional light microscope.

“Ultra-low-cost DNA sequencing and tumour biopsy analysis, in which morphology and mutation analysis are combined, can substantially decrease diagnostic costs and make it more widely accessible,” said first author of the study, Malte Kühnemund of SciLifeLab.

Smartphone testing

Of course, this is not the first time smartphones have been utilised in this way. Two years ago, researchers at Columbia University in New York City claimed to have developed a device that, when connected to a smartphone, could accurately test for HIV in patients.

Trials in Rwanda, which sampled a pool of 96 subjects, showed the device worked as effectively as modern techniques, according to the researchers. Also, at $34, it was $18,000 less expensive than other modern practices.

According to a report, healthcare workers obtained diagnostic results in 15 minutes from the devices that rivalled the gold standard of laboratory-based HIV ELISA and rapid plasma reagin (a screening test for syphilis).

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic