As tech giants Apple and Google rush to bring their wearable devices to the market, medical researchers at Columbia University have developed a $34 iPhone accessory that performs a point-of-care test that detects HIV and syphilis from a single drop of blood in about 15 minutes.
Ten years in the making, the device produces results 10 times faster than traditional testing methods, while replicating all the essential functions of a lab-based blood test. Notably, the power required for the test is drawn directly from the iPhone, which is important in countries where electricity is scarce.
While the ultraportable attachment lacks the sleek design consumers have come to expect from Apple, it easily plugs into the iPhone’s headphone jack. A drop of blood placed on a microfluidic chip is inserted into a canister and then the device, which analyzes the blood sample quickly, replicating the HIV and syphilis tests patients get in a standard laboratory.
Dr. Samuel Sia, lead researcher on the project, has already produced inexpensive tests using microfluidic chips for other diseases, including prostate cancer. Similar plug-in optical accessories and chips are being used to detect the virus that causes Kaposi's sarcoma.
"Coupling microfluidics with recent advances in consumer electronics can make certain lab-based diagnostics accessible to almost any population with access to smartphones. This kind of capability can transform how health care services are delivered around the world," Sia told the Washington Post. "We are really excited about the next steps in bringing this product to the market in developing countries and we are equally excited about exploring how this technology can benefit patients and consumers back home."
Private firms, such as VitaMe Technologies in Ithaca, New York, are already developing smartphone accessories that enable users to monitor the pH of their sweat and saliva. These breakthroughs raise important social questions for the LGBT community, especially among young African-American men, where HIV is still on the rise. Will people require potential sex partners to undergo a "quick prick" test prior to intercourse? And what impact will these devices have on HIV-related stigma, and the social landscape?
There are also deep privacy implications for the gathering of personal data from such devices, especially since data from similar health and fitness apps are already being shared with Apple's new Health app. The company has already reassured the Federal Trade Commission about privacy of the HealthKit platform, and will likely end up setting the bar for privacy when it comes to mobile health services.
”We designed HealthKit with privacy in mind,” Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller told Reuters. ”We’ve been very encouraged by [the FTC's] support.”
SAM PAGE is an HIV-positive fitness trainer, athlete, health coach, and Plus magazine's wellness editor. Find him online at SamPageFitness.com and PeaceLoveLunges.com or get his mobile app Pocket-SAM.com