Most of us have probably gone to a hospital, clinic or pathology centre at some time or another to provide blood or other samples for diagnostic testing, and then waited some time to hear the results of the tests from our doctor.
These types of tests for infections, disease and other health conditions are certainly faster now than they were in the past, but how would it be if a diagnosis could be almost instant? Not only that, what if people travelling, working or residing in remote parts of the world - where the availability of doctors and diagnostic equipment is in short supply - could get very fast diagnoses of conditions just from a single drop of blood or saliva?
This might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but in fact the technology to do this already exists. The technology, while still in the development phases, is being piloted in various parts of the world. This nano-sensing technology may also determine the future of general healthcare, whereby regular visits to the doctor become a thing of the past as the capacity to self-monitor our health and communicate remotely with physicians for health guidance becomes more available.
How nano-sensing technology is changing
Mobile smartphone sensors already have the capacity to detect location, orientation, movement, light, humidity, temperature and proximity to a person's face during a call, using silicon Micro-Electric-Mechanical Systems (MEMS). Researchers, scientists and innovators are delving into the ways that these sensors might further be used - such as to measure air and water quality, detect earthquakes, and even read emotions. Sensors for health and wellness are also being developed, and may have the capacity to revolutionise healthcare technology in the next few decades.
Various types of technology are being developed to capture body metrics and information, including:
- Mobile electromechanical detectors that can conduct medical assessments and relay this information through mobile devices such as smartphones.
- Wearable devices that measure heart rate, blood pressure and so on for self-analysis.
- Phone apps to assist in the self-management of conditions - diabetes for instance.
- Smartphone microscopy apps that use a camera to take photos of samples and transmit them to a lab for analysis.
- Detectors that send health information by audio cable attached to a mobile phone (including old-style phones) and receive back the test results by SMS.
- Organic polymer chips that may one day be implanted in the human body.
How this technology might be used for healthcare
- Very fast diagnosis of diseases and conditions such as HIV, hepatitis, ebola, and malaria from a single drop of blood or saliva.
- Detection of the presence of harmful microbes and infection in the blood.
- Measuring levels of blood glucose in diabetics.
- Monitoring environmental factors - for example toxic chemicals in the water supply.
- Detecting the early stages of a disease and tracking its progress - such as abnormal cell growth that may indicate the early stages of tumours.
- Assessing mental wellbeing and detect signs of depression or mental illness.
- Predicting fertility in women.
- Collecting diagnostic markers for various diseases from exhaled breath.
- Assessing the likelihood of stroke or other illnesses by scanning the inner eye.
- Conducting ECG tests to measure electrical activity of the heart.
- Enabling individuals to conduct their own measurements during workouts, and to better manage their own conditions.
Benefits of mobile sensing technology
Sensing technology of this type, in mainstream use, may provide people with the ability to take an accurate diagnosis of their own health, and save on time spent waiting for appointments or for test results. Other benefits may include:
- Reduction in healthcare costs - especially when compared to current expensive laboratory equipment and tests.
- Make access to healthcare more equitable - especially for people in developing countries and remote areas where doctors and testing equipment are in short supply. At the present time, as many as 4 billion people may lack access to the healthcare we take for granted in the west.
- Diagnose HIV, hepatitis, malaria and other conditions onsite - without the need for people to travel to hospitals and clinics.
- Enable astronauts to monitor their own health while travelling in space.
- Save money on the infrastructure required in developing countries for healthcare.
- Guide public health decisions and measures.
- Educate patients and the public.
- Provide guidance wirelessly to health workers who are at the coalface - for instance doctors can advise health personnel in remote areas on actions to take regarding their patients.
- Provide targeted treatments that are tailored for the individual based on their readings, rather than applying one-size-fits-all prescriptions.
The Nokia XCHALLENGE competitions
Mobile phone giant Nokia is one company to see the potential of nano-sensing with its XCHALLENGE competitions. These competitions were designed to reward the companies producing the best in sensing technology for improving health and wellbeing. The aim was to uncover the development of smarter digital health solutions, especially those that would benefit regions where conventional testing is not available, and that would reduce the cost of healthcare.
Entries were judged on accuracy and consistency, technical innovation, ease-of-use, market opportunity, originality and creativity and other features.
The winner of Competition #1was Nanobiosym for their Gene-RADAR nanotech platform - an iPad-size medical device that scans fluid samples for genetic code and infection. This system was designed for rural sub-Saharan Africa and requires no water or electricity to use. Founder and CEO Anita Goel claims it can be used to diagnose AIDS in less than an hour. The company is also developing tests to detect inflammatory markers in patients.
The second competition was won by the DNA Medicine Institute. This company's product includes three separate instruments - one for research, one for medical personnel, and one for consumers' personal use. The company developed their system in conjunction with NASA and their devices have been tested at zero gravity.
So in the future, instead of travelling to the hospital or clinic for health tests, you may be able to accurately diagnose your own health in your own home, saving yourself time and money on doctor visits. And on a broader scale, medical personnel may be much better equipped to treat patients in remote areas and even to stop potential pandemics in their tracks in the early stages.