The iPhone’s sensitive touch screen may soon be used to test bodily fluids for disease, as researchers discover ways to use smartphones as diagnostic tools.
Users in the near future could collect saliva, blood or urine on an inexpensive, disposable microchip device called a lab on a chip, then send the sample to a lab for analysis. Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology in Daejeon are taking that innovation a step further, developing a process that allows a droplet of fluid to be pressed against a smartphone’s touch screen for instant disease detection
Smartphones like as Apple’s iPhone with advanced touch technology are becoming more commonplace, and may present a way to diagnose conditions without the added expense and time of sending samples to a lab.
Users may theoretically test their own blood or urine at home on a mobile device, a great benefit to people who have chronic conditions requiring regular monitoring. The technology could also facilitate fast diagnosis of conditions in settings such as mobile clinics, nursing homes or schools, enabling fast treatment and containment of potentially communicable or health-threatening conditions.
Other breakthroughs have harnessed smartphone power for disease detection, including “Handyscope,” a clip-on device that allows the iPhone’s camera to take close-up pictures of the skin to find melanoma and other conditions. Physicians are also using smartphones to view brain images for signs of stroke. However, the Korean research is unique in that it would enable users to self-diagnose, in effect turning the iPhone into an at-home diagnostic lab.
The KAIS innovation harnesses a touchscreen’s “capacitive sensitivity,” its ability to sense a fingertip’s electrical charge. The iPhone touch screen’s sensitivity extends far beyond that needed to sense a finger touch or tap, leading researchers to speculate what else it could detect, such biomarkers in bodily fluids signifying the presence of disease.
Researchers acknowledge users may recoil at the idea of putting saliva or urine on their phones, and are also developing a special cover or film to protect the touchscreen from contamination during testing.
The technology is still in development stages, and smartphone software designed to eliminate false-touch signals from drops of moisture or sweat would need to be changed before it could work reliably, a step smartphone makers aren’t likely to take without proof of the technology’s financial benefits.
Users may not be spitting on their iPhones anytime soon to find out if they are sick, but as touch screens continue to progress, research to use them as healthcare tools will likely keep pace.