Scientists have managed to use a simple smartphone to test for blood parasites; the device and app was successful in small trials in Cameroon.

Image credits: BBC.

Parasitic worms cause many problems in several areas of Africa, especially in central Africa, where tropical diseases are running rampant. There are many issues with detecting and treating these diseases, especially diagnosing infections in the early stages, while treatment can still be effective. With this new app, with only a finger prick, you can find if your blood is infected with a worm. But it gets even better.

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Among the problems in dealing with such diseases is the fact that some people react well to treatment, while for others, the treatment can be fatal. This app can also detect who will react well and who won’t.

“With one touch of the screen, the device moves the sample, captures video and automatically analyses the images,” said one of the researchers, Prof Daniel Fletcher.

The trick is that the app doesn’t try to actually detect the worm, but it focuses on detecting movement within the blood. The whole system is very efficient and it was praised by experts in the field.

“This is a very important technology,” said Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Peter Hotez, a well-known specialist in neglected tropical diseases who wasn’t involved in the new research. “It’s very practical,” by eliminating the need for specially trained health workers and pricey equipment in remote villages, he added.

Now, researchers are wondering if a similar system could be used to detect other diseases, including TB, malaria and soil-transmitted parasitic worms. Considering other recent advancements in using smartphones to detect diseases, there’s reasons to be optimistic – Columbia University scientists created a device that can detect HIV or syphilis and are pilot testing it in Rwanda, while at the Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors are researching a tool that clips over a smartphone camera to detect cancer in blood or tissue samples. To me, using advanced, yet commonly accessible technology to detect such serious diseases is a spectacular achievement.

Prof Simon Brooker from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, commented:

“I think it’s one of the most fundamental advances in neglected tropical diseases in a long time. In the 21st Century we are using 20th Century technology to diagnose these infections, this brings us into the modern world. It really is exciting; when you see it you just go ‘wow’; hopefully it will transform efforts to eliminate diseases,” he added.