Cancer Testing? There’s an App for That

Physicians are using smart phones to diagnose diseases, check blood cell counts and identify pathogens in drinking water.

Many people already use their smart­phones as far more than mere telephones—as gadgets for Web surfing, e-mailing or listening to music. Some scientists are now turning them into handheld tools to diagnose cancer or infectious disease, track treatment progress or check water safety. Given that the handsets are so common, they could bring cutting-edge health care technology to the developing world.

Diagnosing cancer is a challenge because it requires expensive, time-consuming assays. But in a recent study published in Science Translational Medicine, Ralph Weissleder and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School used a cell phone and a lunch box–size machine to diagnose cancer from tiny pieces of tissue, taken via needle from the abdomens of patients with suspected metastatic cancers. Researchers mixed the samples with antibodies that bound to four known cancer-related proteins. The machine analyzed the samples using nuclear magnetic resonance—measuring levels of the antibody-bound proteins based on their magnetic properties. It then sent the results to the smart­­phone, which, using an app that the researchers designed, displayed the data. Because doctors don’t need a laptop or desktop, it would be easier for them to assess patients outside the clinic. In comparison, results from more traditional diagnostic methods are typically not available for three days and require more invasive tissue sampling.

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