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mHealth Researchers Eye the Smartphone as a Zika Detection Device

Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital are working on mHealth technology that would enable healthcare providers - and consumers - to use smartphones to identify the Zika virus.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital are working on mHealth technology that can detect the Zika virus through a smartphone.

As reported in the journal ACS Nano, the researchers are developing nanotechnology sensors that enable users with a smartphone to identify the virus with a $5 optical attachment. The technology – called the nanomotor-based bead-motion cellphone (NBC) system - can reportedly detected the virus in samples with viral concentrations as low as 1 particle per microliter and differentiate between Zika and similar viruses like dengue, which often leads to false positive diagnoses.

The digital health platform holds promise for improving Zika detection and outcomes, as well as enhancing access to care in remote regions and developing countries where the virus is common. It may also, in time, be used to identify other viruses and improve care management and coordination in the US and other developed countries.

"Zika diagnostics represent an urgent need in many parts of the world,” Hadi Shafiee, PhD, principal investigator at the BWH Division of Engineering in Medicine and Renal Division of Medicine, told Phys.org. “Our goal is to address this unmet clinical need using cell-phone-based technology,"

"Cell phones have the power to perform complicated analyses, handle image processing, take high quality images, and are ubiquitous in Zika-afflicted countries,” he added. “We can leverage this to address outbreaks of infectious disease."

The researchers said the technology might also be used as a home-testing platform for couples trying to conceive in regions where Zika is present.

"The NBC system has the potential to be used at the point of care for disease detection in both developed and developing countries," said Mohamed Shehata Draz, PhD, lead author of the study and an instructor in the BWH Division of Engineering in Medicine. "This is an important way to eliminate the social stress related to Zika virus infection and health problems specifically related to newborns."

The project is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of mobile health programs across the world aiming to turn the smartphone – or a similar mHealth device – into a portable lab used by healthcare providers to enhance and improve diagnosis and treatment in the field. mHealth entrepreneurs also see the value of this technology in direct-to-consumer models, giving people the opportunity to conduct their own tests at home before showing up in the doctor’s office or hospital.

Two years ago, Kalorama Information estimated healthcare spent almost $20 million on point-of-care (POC) diagnostic testing devices and services, ranging from pregnancy to blood and endocrinology tests. That number is expected to get much higher as the technology improves.

"The driving force behind point of care innovations in the health arena is to provide expedited diagnosis where the patient is seen or in the patient's home," Kalorama publisher Bruce Carlson said at the time. "New technologies are allowing POC devices to produce quantitative lab-quality test results that can be transferred automatically to an information system, a remote caregiver service for consultation, or an electronic medical record."

So whether it’s to extend point-of-care healthcare services into remote regions or give consumers an opportunity to access services at home, the evolution of the smartphone into an mHealth device holds promise for care coordination and management across the globe.

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