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Snap cholesterol selfies with new smartphone app, device

Few home cholesterol test kits separate out "good" cholesterol from "bad" cholesterol, but a new smartphone app and attachment aims to give home testers a clearer picture of their actual cholesterol health.

As with glucose monitoring, the device measures blood on a test strip. Clamped over the smartphone camera, it sends the image to the phone's app, which uses colorimetric analysis to take the cholesterol reading.
Cornell University

New tech being developed at Cornell University aims to bring cholesterol testing to smartphones to make the numbers both more specific and easier to track.

Home cholesterol test kits have been around since the early 1990s, catering to those with high cholesterol levels -- which puts them at a higher risk of developing heart disease -- who need to check their numbers more than once every few years.

But the majority of home tests take total cholesterol readings only, without separating out the "good," high-density lipoprotein (HDL, which helps prevent cholesterol from building up in the arteries) from the "bad," low-density variety (LDL, the main source of building that blocks the arteries), thereby denying home testers a clear picture of their actual cholesterol health.

The mechanical engineers at Cornell have developed a system -- the Smartphone Cholesterol Application for Rapid Diagnostics, aka smartCARD -- that includes a device that hooks on to a smartphone and uses its camera to capture an image of a blood, sweat, or saliva sample inserted into the device via a standard test strip. The image is then sent to the related app, which uses colorimetric analysis to read cholesterol levels in the sample.

David Erickson, Cornell associate professor of mechanical engineering and lead author on the team's peer-reviewed study in Lab on a Chip, said that while the prototype only captures total cholesterol numbers, his team is already working on breaking out LDL and HDL readings, as well as measuring triglyceride (fat in the blood that provides energy) and vitamin D (which helps the body absorb calcium) levels.

"One of the challenges with deploying home diagnostics is that the cost of the machine to read the test strips can be expensive, difficult to use, and unfamiliar," Erickson explained in an e-mail to CNET. "What's been transformative in the last few years is that now everybody is carrying around this incredibly powerful computer that they use all the time, are very familiar with, and have already paid for. By building simple systems that can use the features of the smartphone people are already carrying significantly lowers the cost to entry."

In this case, Erickson is specifically referring to today's sophisticated smartphone cameras, which allow his optics-based device to capture the information it needs to detect biomarkers in a blood, sweat, or saliva sample.

Erickson said his team has already formed a company called VitaMe technologies, which is in the process of commercializing a few devices related to personal nutrition monitoring. He expects it will take a year to get the necessary approvals to bring their smartphone-based cholesterol test to market.

"You can imagine being able to link up your results to your Facebook page and potentially compete with others to obtain the best vitamin D status, or cholesterol levels," Erickson added. "What we hope is to eventually allow people to take a 'healthy-selfie' -- a snapshot of their own bloodwork."