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Smartphone based hand-held devices: Towards a smart era in biomedical diagnosis

7 Jun | By Piyush Kumar
Smartphone based hand-held devices: Towards a smart era in biomedical diagnosis
Image source: https://phys.org/news/2016-08-lens-camera-good.html
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Fierce competition in the industry has transformed smartphones into a high-end device that can shuffle between being personal-assistance devices to versatile equipments required for carrying out tasks related to work, daily chores and entertainment. Latest research findings have suggested that smartphones may now also function as ‘personalised’ diagnostic tools. Several research groups are already working towards innovative approaches which would integrate diagnostic capabilities such as blood glucose monitoring, identification of pathogens and pathological conditions, and food testing, to list a few possibilities, directly with the smartphones. Diagnosis and screening are thus poised to relocate from specialized laboratories to the ‘hand held’ smartphones. This would greatly help people, especially patients suffering from diseases, such as diabetes, which require regular monitoring. Further, screening/diagnosis of endemic diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, will be quick and user friendly and enable early medication. 


Usually, in complex cases such as dengue and malaria, the suspects have to undergo a battery of blood-based tests to confirm the disease to facilitate the appropriate medication. This often results into deterioration of patients’ health conditions as precious time is lost when patients have to undertake multiple visits to clinicians and diagnostic laboratories. In case of diseases such as cancers, in spite of advancements in treatment modalities, the mortality rates are high and survival rates are abysmal, primarily due to late detection. Readily available diagnostic tools in the form of smartphones would enable timely diagnosis as any suspected findings can be followed up with clinicians. Therapy monitoring and disease progression may also be possible, by estimating levels of biological markers of diseases/abnormalities.


Several modern non-invasive diagnostic methods use spectroscopy based tools where light is used to discern biochemical changes in the tissues/blood samples. The interaction between light and biological samples can be used to decipher the biochemical make-up of the samples with the help of spectrometers. Modern research is set to develop these spectrometers as plug-in/add-on devices for smartphones and can, after more research, even be coupled with the camera-system of the smartphones. Thus diagnosis/identification of samples would be reduced to a few ‘clicks’ on the smartphones. Such devices are being actively explored in the diagnosis of several cancers. Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is already exploring skin cancers using such devices. A collaboration between Tata Group, India and the MIT is actively funding this research. Several other centres are also working in this direction.


The greatest advantage with such devices would be the rapid, in-the-home, and minimally invasive measurements that can be inferred using algorithms implemented in user-friendly apps. Thus the procedure can be easily carried out by the end users without requiring any technical expertise. A medical practitioner can be consulted later, based on the preliminary findings. The size and cost of these plug-in devices are expected to continuously decrease with advancements in technology. However, as these are not being commercially produced at mass scale, it may be a short wait before it reaches the end users at affordable cost and sizes. Size as well as cost, after all, would matter in this case! 


Dr Piyush Kumar

(The article first appeared in Biotech Express Magazine, and was written for a diverse range of readers).

Category: Point-of-care
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