Clinical laboratory-on-a-chip would cost under £1 and allow young people to test themselves for sexually-transmitted diseases



Some wags call a new diagnostic testing concept the “pee in the cell phone” pathology lab test. The humor is directed at cell phone-based medical laboratory tests under development in the hopes that this confidential and private diagnostic test method will encourage more young people to undergo testing for sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs).

Newspapers in the United Kingdom are reporting on a research project—funded in part by the government—to develop STD tests that can be run on a USB-size chip that is inserted into a smart phone or a personal computer.

This project is a response to the significant rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people. In the United Kingdom, the rate of new infections for herpes, chlamydia and gonorrhea are rising to record levels.

Clinical Laboratory Test on a Cell Phone or Personal Computer

cell phones

Some wags are calling a new diagnostic testing concept the “pee in the cell phone” pathology lab test.

British scientists are working on technology that would use smart phones and personal computers to diagnose STDs, according to a recent report in the Guardian. The technology utilizes nanotechnology and microfluidics to create miniaturized clinical laboratories on a chip. It is under development by a consortium called the Electronic Self-testing Instruments for Sexually Transmitted Infections.

The research sponsor is the UK Clinical Research Collaboration, a forum comprising seven funders, including the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council (MRC). A total of £4m [U.S. $6.4 million] has been invested in the project so far.

This self-test device is aimed at tech-savvy youths, whom public health officials say frequently are too embarrassed to see a doctor for this problem. They thus go untreated and continue to spread their STDs to others.

The mobile test kit would allow users to test for STDs in the privacy of their homes by putting a small amount of urine or saliva on a USB-like chip and plugging it into the cell phone or computer. Developers say the test kits would be available at pharmacies, supermarkets, and bathroom vending machines for under £1 [U.S. $1.60].

Tariq Sadig, M.D., lead investigator and senior lecturer and consultant physician in sexual health and HIV at St. George’s University in London, told the Guardian that the test would “diagnose whether you’ve got one of a range of STIs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, and tells you where to go next to get treatment.

“We need to tackle the rising epidemic of STIs, which have been going up and up and up,” he continued, noting that Britain has one of the worst records in Western Europe for teenage pregnancy and STIs. A record 482,696 cases were reported last year. Two-thirds of women and half of men who reported a new STI were under 25 years old.

Marion Henderson, Ph.D., a member of MRC’s social and public health sciences unit, stressed the importance of finding new ways to engage young adults, who may be intimidated by testing in a formal setting. “This is important, particularly for women, as it can lead to future painful pelvic inflammatory disease and even infertility, both of which could be avoided with testing and appropriate treatment.”

Implications of a Personal Pathology Laboratory-on-a-Chip

Dark Daily believes that, beyond the obvious goal of encouraging more young people to undergo testing for sexually-transmitted diseases, the achievement of a personal “pathology lab-on-a-chip” could have a profound impact on pathology and laboratory medicine, in at least three ways:

  • First, particularly for screening purposes, were this technology to deliver an acceptable level of sensitivity and specificity, it could be used to develop cell phone/PC-based tests for other infectious diseases—including HPV and HIV. This would give public health officials and consumers new options to test for infectious disease without the need for the individual to come to a medical clinic to provide a specimen and wait for results.
  • Second, researchers in the United Kingdom hope to deliver this cell phone/PC-based lab test methodology for a retail price of under U.S. $1.60. Again, if the technology performs at clinically-acceptable levels of sensitivity and specificity, then this lower-cost medical laboratory testing method could shift testing volume away from today’s large centralized clinical laboratories. A significantly lower price often trumps many other considerations.
  • Third, the fact that researchers are working to develop such a patient self-test assay with only U.S. $6.4 million in funding makes another statement. It implies that other research projects—with relatively small amounts of funding—could use existing technologies in micro-fluidics, informatics, and diagnostics to develop similar types of clinical pathology laboratory tests that would deliver clinically-reliable results for just pennies per analyte.

While it is unknown if this test would ever be marketed in the United States, the advent of such a cell phone/PC-based laboratory test-on-a-chip would set the stage for the next generation of self-testing technology. Widespread use of these lab test technology might significantly reduce the specimen volume flowing into centralized clinical laboratories. On the other hand, the cell phone/PC-based laboratory test-on-a-chip certainly fits the trend to make health care services more convenient, efficient, and cost effective.  —P. Kirk

Related Information:

Mobile phone kits to diagnose STDs

Brits want cell phone kits to diagnose STDs

Mobile phones may diagnose STDs