but should also eventually yield simpler diagnostic tools within reach of
Dr. David Bello of Florida-based Orlando Health has developed a smartphone-based stethoscope that retails
for less than $50. Using a small sensor
device that connects to a smartphone
via its headphone jack, the system can
capture a user’s heartbeat and project
a visualization of it onscreen—
potentially offering consumers an easy-to-use
tool for monitoring their cardiac health.
Since 2013, a team of researchers at
Cornell University have been developing a portable tool that analyzes blood
samples for nutritional deficiencies,
with results sent to a mobile phone
in about 10 minutes. The developers,
who have moved the technology to
global health startup VitaScan, hope
the device could one day make this
kind of testing available throughout
the developing world.
“This is a severe, global, and frequently overlooked problem,” explains
Li Jiang, VitaScan’s CEO. Testing for
vitamins and micronutrients poses far
more complex diagnostic challenges
than a simple yes/no result (like a pregnancy test). In developing countries,
limited access to laboratory testing
means nutritional problems too often
“The high cost and difficulty of assessing malnutrition has made it such
that most people are not aware of it until they get sick,” he says.
The VitaScan system relies on a
small standalone diagnostic unit that
can analyze a blood sample collected via
a finger prick. The unit then communi-
cates wirelessly over the Internet with a
server-based application that can then
transmit results to a user’s smartphone.
While in principle such a device could
connect directly to a smartphone, FDA
regulations preclude putting smartphones in close contact with biological
fluids for safety reasons.
The company is planning to release
its product initially to doctors’ offices
and clinics, before expanding into the
consumer market, where Li sees an opportunity for VitaScan to take its place
within the larger ecosystem of personal
health and nutrition applications.
“It’s more than just processing
power,” he says. “The ubiquity and per-
sonalized nature of smartphones have
helped drive the growth of personal-
For a health-conscious consumer, a
tool like VitaScan could form one com-
ponent of a self-administered health
and wellness regimen, with the user’s
smartphone corralling and synthesizing
input from multiple sources like a diet
tracker, fitness monitor, or any number
of other information appliances.
With so many of these smartphone-based scientific instruments coming to
market, we may be witnessing a maturation of the underlying technologies,
like processors, optics, and fabrica-
tion methods. As is so often the case
in computing, last year’s innovations
become this year’s infrastructure.
Looking ahead, the next wave of exper-
imentation may have less to do with the
instruments themselves and more to do
with finding the right pathways to market.
“There are still lots of improvements to come to the core technologies, but the next wave of real innovation will come with applications,” says
Ozcan. “Now it’s time to harness the
power of what we’ve achieved.”
De Greef, L., Goel, M., Seo, M., Larson, E., Stout,
J., Taylor, J., and Patel, S. BiliCam
Using mobile phones to monitor newborn
jaundice. UBICOMP ‘ 14 Adjunct, Sept. 13 -
Kühnemund, M., Wei, Q., Darai, E., Wang, Y.,
Hernández-Neuta, I., Yang, Z., Tseng, D.,
Ahlford, A., Mathot, L., Sjöblom, T., Ozcan, A.,
and Nilsson, M.
Targeted DNA sequencing and in situ
mutation analysis using mobile phone
microscopy. Nature Communications 8,
Article number: 13913 (2017). doi: 10.1038/
The potential impact of nanopore
sequencing on human genetics. Human
Molecular Genetics, ddx287, doi: 10.1093/
The Invisible Computer. MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA. 1998.
Wang, L., Chang, Y., Sun, R., and Li, L.
A multichannel smartphone optical
biosensor for high-throughput point-of-care
diagnostics. Biosensors and Bioelectronics,
Volume 87, 15 January 2017, pp. 686-692.
doi: 10.1016/ j.bios.2016.09.021
Alex Wright is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY.
© 2018 ACM 0001-0782/18/1 $15.00
been working on
a portable tool
Elements of Washington State University’s smartphone-based spectrometer.