Paper sensor and a mobile camera phone may change lives

Posted on June 8, 2011

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Imagine this: a baby is delivered in a sub-Saharan African village. In common with 56 per cent of all births in this region there is no skilled health staff at the birth. No one will send a sample of the baby’s blood for testing to the clinical laboratory – because there isn’t one.

However, the person who delivered the baby takes her mobile phone from her back pocket and inserts a small sensor containing a minute amount of blood from the infant’s heel and takes a picture.

The phone sends the information from the sensor to a doctor who is able remotely to diagnose immediately whether or not the baby has thyroid deficiency. If the diagnosis is positive, the treatment is simple, effective and inexpensive: a daily dose of the thyroid hormone, thyroxine, by mouth.

It sounds far-fetched, but according to Dr Conor Hogan, this could soon be a reality.

Dr Hogan, from La Trobe’s Department of Chemistry, part of the new La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS), is a member of a team developing a diagnostic device that uses a sheet of paper, tiny slip of plastic and the camera of a mobile phone to detect markers for congenital hypothyroidism, the most common preventable cause of mental retardation in the world.

‘We’re concentrating on thyroid deficiency as one in 4,000 newborn infants has a severe deficiency of thyroid function, while even more have mild or partial thyroid deficiency,’ he says.

‘Nearly all of the developed world practices newborn screening to detect and treat congenital hypothyroidism in the first weeks of life,’ says Dr Hogan.

‘Sadly, the developing world does not have the facilities that are needed. However, a technology that virtually everybody, including those in the developing world, has access to is a mobile phone,’ he says.

Boon for developing countries

As Dr Hogan says, many developing countries have ‘leapfrogged’ traditional telecommunications in favour of wireless.

‘Given that the capability of mobile phones has grown to the extent that the computing power of even a basic model is not dramatically different from that of a desktop PC, mobile phone based detection makes good sense,’ he adds.

According to Dr Hogan, an analytical scientist, the team is on its way to creating a cheap, portable alternative to typical laboratory-based and expensive diagnostic techniques.

The team, which includes La Trobe PhD student Jacqui Delaney, Monash University’s Dr Wei Shen and Junfei Tian, is using an emerging scientific technique known as electro-chemiluminescence (ECL).

‘Our simple medical device generates signals based on ECL that camera phones can easily capture,’ says Dr Hogan.

ECL, in which an electrochemical controls a light-producing chemical reaction, is an emerging area in the field of chemical sensors.

According to the paper recently published by the team in the leading journal Analytical Chemistry, it has high detection sensitivity, does not depend on the availability of daylight or artificial lighting and does not require a dedicated scientific instrument to work.

Through a $500,000 Australian Research Council Discovery grant, the team has been able to get the device to proof of concept stage successfully.

Low cost – and readily affordable

The work has involved fabricating the sensors cheaply by inkjet printing channels onto filter paper and embedding into them chemicals which give off light. The built-in camera of a mobile phone is capable of detecting this light following electrochemical stimulation by a voltage produced at the phone’s jack.

‘What happens is that these sensors pick up digital images of the chemical response which are then immediately transmitted to a doctor to diagnose remotely,’ says Dr Hogan.

Dr Hogan: Hoping to hit the market by 2017.

The Victorian based team is not alone in using mobile phones to develop devices.

‘Scientists around the world are investigating ways in which to use mobile phones as a way of bringing health care to developing countries and remote communities.

‘With over 60 per cent of people in the developing world already having mobile phones, the idea is sensible,’ says Dr Hogan.

The team is now aiming to produce sensors that cost only a few cents so that the device is readily affordable.

They are working on improving the materials as well as the design and functionality of the sensor. They are also readying themselves for calls from forward thinking mobile phone companies to step in and make the idea a reality.

‘We’re hopeful that we can get the product onto the market by 2017 with a little help from a commercial company,’ says Dr Hogan.