Could smartphones be used to diagnose tumors?


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Smartphones are getting smarter by the day. Whatever it is you need to do, it seems there's an app for it. But that modern electronic marvel can do way more than just help you keep your work, family and social lives more organized. As we've reported before, the technology in your pocket can also be a tool to help doctors stay on top of your health. It might even save your life.


A closer look

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have developed a device that allows a smartphone to diagnose tumors and the development of other diseases like Human papillomavirus (HPV) — the most common sexually transmitted infection. By bringing together such sophisticated technology and the ubiquitous cell phone, the intention is to bring the latest advances in medical research to those locations where it is not currently available.

The D3 (digital diffraction diagnosis) system is an "imaging module" — essentially, a highly sophisticated camera — and a battery-powered LED light that connects to a smartphone. It can capture high-resolution microscopic images of cells — 100,000 at a time — from a blood or tissue sample. This, the developers say, means capturing significantly more data than traditional microscopy all of which can be transmitted for analysis via a secure, encrypted cloud service with the results then quickly sent to the point of care.

Co-lead author Dr. Hyungsoon Im, a research fellow at the MGH Center for Systems Biology, says: "Compared with traditional analysis techniques, the D3 mobile platform generates robust biological data while being significantly more cost conscious, operable by non-specialist end users, and well-suited to point-of-care settings."


Punching in the numbers

As they report in PNAS Early Edition, the researchers say the imaging module uses the kind of technology used to create holograms. For tumors, the blood or tissue sample is "labeled" with microbeads that bind to known cancer-related molecules and then loaded into the D3 system. The microbeads can be different sizes or they may be coated meaning they will generate a diffraction pattern specific to the condition of the individual patient's cells. This data can be analyzed to build up a highly accurate diagnosis of any problems that might be developing.

The team says their numerical algorithm is capable of analyzing as much as 10MB of data in less than nine hundredths of a second. Dr Im says: "We have field tested the wireless readouts in rural areas of northern New England without problems and believe this technology is poised to deliver fast, low-cost and accurate cancer and HPV diagnosis."

In their pilot system, the team says they detected the presence of tumor proteins with an accuracy matching that of the current gold standard for such procedures. In an analysis of cervical biopsy samples from 25 women with abnormal PAP smears using microbeads, the researchers say the D3 system was able to "promptly and reliably" label biopsy samples high-risk, low-risk or benign, with results matching those of conventional pathologic analysis. In tests, the system was able to match the results of the conventional system of protein analysis for "fine-needle" lymph node biopsy samples. As well as the identification of these proteins, in other tests, the developers were able to detect DNA from the human papilloma virus "with great sensitivity." As well as the convenience afforded by the smartphone — the results were produced in less than an hour — the system is eminently affordable — a cost of $1.80 per test, a price it is suggested would fall as the system is developed.


Hotline to health

The team believes that smartphone technology is the ideal way to expand the reach of medicine across the world. "The global burden of cancer, limited access to prompt pathology services in many regions and emerging cell profiling technologies increase the need for low-cost, portable and rapid diagnostic approaches that can be delivered at the point of care," says Dr. Cesar Castro of MGH Center for Systems Biology and co-lead author of the report.

Dr. Ralph Weissleder, co-senior author of the paper adds that "by taking advantage of the increased penetration of mobile phone technology worldwide, the system should allow the prompt triaging of suspicious or high-risk cases that could help to offset delays caused by limited pathology services in those regions and reduce the need for patients to return for follow-up care, which is often challenging for them." Dr. Hakho Lee says the team looks forward to an integration of D3 into large databases and its use in the "care-delivery sites in developing countries or rural settings and for home testing with seamless sharing of information with providers and/or clinical investigators."

Such is the flexibility of the system, that it may promise even bigger things for the future. Lee says the hope is that, with further development, they will be able to widen the scope of the D3 system for "other disease catalysts, including infectious agents and allergens." With the ubiquity of smartphones being utilized more and more for medical applications, it does indeed seem as if the opportunities they could provide are almost endless.