Low-cost smartphone device for testing HIV, syphilis

Used STD tests
Copyright: Brian Sokol / Panos

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  • A low-cost, smartphone device could test syphilis and HIV in about 15 minutes
  • A trial shows it can identify 92-100 per cent of patients with syphilis or HIV
  • The device is liked by 97 per cent of patients because of its convenience

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[KIGALI] Scientists have developed a low-cost device for testing HIV and syphilis that could help save the lives of patients in developing countries.
Dubbed the“diagnostic dongle”, the device developed by scientists at Columbia University in the United States allows a patient to place his or her finger on the smartphone button that draws a pinprick of blood into the device, researchers say. 

“The development of the new device is part of scientists’ efforts to reduce the expensive medical tests incurred in poor countries.”

Sabin Nsanzimana, Rwanda Biomedical Centre

Within 15 minutes, the blood is analysed for HIV and syphilis and the dongle then displays the results on the smartphone’s screen. The dongle uses disposable plastic cassettes, and is small enough to fit in one hand.
The scientists, in a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicinelast month (4 February), surveyed 96 patients in Rwanda, says the device correctly identify 92 to 100 per cent of the patients with syphilis or HIV whereas it could correctly identify 76 to 100 per cent of those who did not have any of these disease.
Samuel Sia, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, says the dongle is popular because it was found to be less costly and yet works almost as well as the expensive laboratory equipment.

He added that the new device costs only US$34 to produce compared with about US$18,000,laboratory-based, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) equipment.

Sabin Nsanzimana, a co-author and the head of the HIV division at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, says the current methods fortesting HIV require sophisticated laboratory equipment.

“The development of the new device is part of scientists’ efforts to reduce the expensive medical tests incurred in poor countries. We believe this approach will prevent diseases in pregnant women that can be passed on to their children,” Nsanzimana told SciDev.Net

According to the researchers, 97 per cent of patients in the trial said they would prefer the dongle to a traditional laboratory test because of convenience.

“We need better and cheap ways of accessing health services, especially those related to HIV testing,” says Liliane Agatha, who was tested during the trial.

The low-cost dongle reproduces all mechanical, optical, and electronic roles of a lab-based ELISA kit minus stored energy, and its power comes from the smartphone according to findings.

In the Rwanda trial, the healthcare workers who were trained for 30 minutes, used the dongle to test whole blood obtained from patients enrolled at mother-to-child transmission clinics or voluntary counselling and testing centres.

Allan Bucyeyeneza, an HIV/AIDS expert and researcher based in Kigali, Rwanda, cautions that while the device is good, another test by the WHO to assess its accuracy is important.
>Link to abstract in Science Translational Medicine

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.


Science Translational Medicine doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aaa0056 (2015)