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Cheap Smartphone Dongle Can Test for Disease

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A cheap appliance that fits onto a smartphone can successfully test people for the AIDS virus and syphilis, researchers reported Wednesday.

The appliance, called a dongle, pulls its power from the smartphone and works with a fingerprick of blood, much like a home diabetes blood glucose test, the team reports in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Samuel Sia of Columbia University in New York and colleagues tested the device on 96 volunteers in Rwanda. It wasn’t perfect, but worked almost as well as an expensive lab test to show who had active syphilis infections and who was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, they said.

"We know that early diagnosis and treatment in pregnant mothers can greatly reduce adverse consequences to both mothers and their babies," Sia said in a statement.

The device is small and light enough to fit into one hand. It uses disposable plastic cassettes and should cost about $34 to make, Sia estimates. The device runs what’s called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test. Typical ELISA equipment set up in a lab costs more than $18,000, Sia said. The new device would take that lab test into the field.

"By increasing detection of syphilis infections, we might be able to reduce deaths by 10-fold,” Sia said. “We might be able to scale up HIV testing at the community level with immediate antiretroviral therapy that could nearly stop HIV transmissions and approach elimination of this devastating disease,” he added.

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