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Tracking diseases using Google Maps and cell phones

Researchers at UCLA digitize rapid diagnostic tests to test for diseases such as HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis with less user error.

Many of us have relied on rapid diagnostic tests at one time or another, whether it's testing for pregnancy, blood glucose levels, or strep throat.

But while dropping fluid samples on a small strip for near-instantaneous results is affordable and convenient, reading results using the human eye means there is the potential for, well, human error.

Aydogan Ozcan demonstrates his team's RDT cell phone attachment. Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

So researchers at UCLA have taken the human out of the equation as much as possible and developed a digital "universal" reader for all rapid diagnostic tests, or RDTs, that requires no translation of results.

In the journal Lab on a Chip, the team of engineers describes the device as an RDT-reader attachment that clips onto a cell phone (they used iPhones and Android-based smartphones). At 65 grams, the attachment consists of an inexpensive lens, two AAA batteries, and three LED arrays.

The researchers say the attachment can read almost every type of RDT available; all the user does is insert the RDT strip into the attachment, which is then converted into a digital image via the phone's built-in camera.

An app then determines two things: whether the digital RTD is valid and whether the results are positive or negative. But the team didn't stop there. They have the reader transmit these results wirelessly to a server for processing, storage, and mapping via Google Maps to track the spread of specific conditions and diseases globally over time.

"This platform would be quite useful for global health professionals, as well as for policymakers, to understand cause-effect relationships at a much larger scale for combating infectious diseases," Aydogan Ozcan, a UCLA electrical engineering and bioengineering professor, said in a school news release.

We first wrote about Ozcan's work back in 2009, when he was adapting cell phones to sample biological images via the camera, not a microscope. He has since developed several cell phone attachments that take advantage of the digital components already built into the phones, not to mention cloud-based monitoring.

Should this device come to market and be widely used, we may all be afforded the opportunity to see, in real time, which diseases are trending where, and whether it's a good idea to leave the house on any given day.