18 July 2018
The diagnostic dongle, which is attached to a smartphone, costs only US$34. Photo: Samiksha Nayak/Columbia Engineering
The diagnostic dongle, which is attached to a smartphone, costs only US$34. Photo: Samiksha Nayak/Columbia Engineering

A smartphone dongle for detecting HIV

New York’s Columbia University has developed a smartphone attachment to test for diseases such as HIV and syphilis.

It works almost just as well as expensive lab equipment, is a lot cheaper, and therefore could be well suited for making fast diagnoses in poor countries, Bloomberg News reported.

The “diagnostic dongle”, which is attached to a smartphone through the audio jack, costs only US$34, compared with top-of-the-line testing equipment which cost about US$18,450.

The device was used in testing 96 patients in Rwanda, and was able to correctly identify HIV and syphilis infections 92 to 100 percent of the time, according to a study published in Science Translational Medicine.

The test, which can be done in 15 minutes, was used to identify diseases in pregnant women that can be passed on to their children.

“If you diagnose and treat them on the spot, you can save the life of a newborn,” Samuel Sia, senior author of the paper and associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia, told Bloomberg in a phone interview. “If it’s not treated, you can have stillbirth.”

Most of the patients in the trial preferred the dongle to a traditional lab test because of the convenience and quick results.

The dongle uses disposable plastic cassettes, and is small enough to fit in one hand, according to the researchers.

Columbia’s research into smartphone-based diagnostic tools is part of a wider effort to miniaturize medical tests that are normally done in a lab so they could be performed in remote and impoverished places.

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, health researchers have seen the need to develop field tests that could provide rapid diagnoses of diseases. 

The growing popularity of portable technology such as laptop computers, smartphones and smartwatches has made it possible for them to monitor everything from blood count to heart condition in distant locations.

Columbia’s diagnostic dongle uses a smartphone or iPod as a power source. Patients place their finger on a button that draws a pinprick of blood into the device. The blood is then analyzed for HIV and syphilis. The dongle displays the results on the device’s screen.

Sia hopes to interest international agencies such as the World Health Organization to purchase the device for developing countries. It could also be commercialized for wider use at home just like a thermometer or a pregnancy test kit.

Watch YouTube video on how the diagnostic dongle works:

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