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Mobile phones may diagnose STDs

John D. Sutter
A group of universities is developing chips that could help cell phones diagnose STDs.
A group of universities is developing chips that could help cell phones diagnose STDs.
  • Researchers are developing chips that let mobile phones diagnose STDs
  • Test results could be available in about 15 minutes
  • The technology is still in development and could be available in 10 years
  • Researchers aim to make the tests affordable: about $3 per test, they say

(CNN) -- A research project in Europe aims to let people self-diagnose sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and syphilis by using their mobile phones.

But don't worry. You won't have to pee or spit on your phone, despite what the tech blogs are saying about these efforts.

The "eSTI2" project, managed by Tariq Sadiq from St George's University of London, England, recently received a $6.5 million grant to develop small chips that can be used to used to test saliva, urine or blood for sexually transmitted diseases. The chips -- which, yes, you would need to pee on in some cases -- would connect to mobile phones for processing.

It's possible that a smartphone app would be able to tell a person if they'd tested positive or negative for a particular STD in 5 to 15 minutes, Sadiq said.

"It's brining the diagnostics to the population rather than having the population come into clinics," he said. "We've really wanted to do this process because there's been this huge burden of sexually transmitted infections."

Despite other efforts, STDs generally are on the rise, he said, and the stigma associated with testing -- as well as the inconvenience of waiting for an appointment at a clinic -- dissuades many people from getting tested.

The eSTI2 project hopes to break down those barriers.

The group has developed chip prototypes that are about the size of a Flash memory card. They cost about $15 to $30, Sadiq said, but he aims to bring that cost down to about $3 before they go on sale.

The prototypes will need to go through clinical trials and further tech development. They could be on the market in 7 to 10 years, he said.

"We're kind of halfway there to be honest, and that's why we've got funding -- to complete that," he said.

The chips could be made available in public locations like vending machines or in nightclubs, he said. The research group -- whose acronym stands for Electronic Self-Testing Instruments for Sexually Transmitted Infections -- is trying to investigate all aspects of this technology before releasing products.

"We might not want to include an HIV test in a vending machine," he said.

Doctors, social scientists and technologists need to understand the pros and cons of on-the-spot STD testing before introducing these products to the public, Sadiq said. Because of that, the group is inching the project forward rather than racing to commercialization.

Other on-the-go STD tests -- like a saliva test for HIV -- have not been as accurate as companies have claimed, he said. The tests must be accurate, easy to use and secure before they're useful, he said.

The chips could be used to diagnose a range of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, he said. The mobile phone would simply be used to process the results; the actual testing chips require most of the tech development.

The small chips would be used once and then thrown away, and they would plug into mobile phones via a standard cable, Sadiq said, although the group hasn't figured out exactly what that would look like.

Sadiq is not the first to work on the concept of on-the-go medical testing using mobile phones. George Whitesides at Harvard University has created a prototype "lab on a chip" that could be used in the developing world to diagnose HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis and gastroenteritis.

Whitesides' chips are made of paper that changes color when a small drop of blood is added. Testers snap mobile-phone photos of the chip and send them via text message to a clinic for diagnosis. His aim is to create chips that would sell for 1 cent and be available in about a year.


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