HIV, herpes, syphilis…one day there will be an App for that. Researchers in the UK are developing a device which could enable you to test yourself for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) using your smart phone. Lead by Tariq Sadiq at St. George’s University in London and including work from dozens of scientists in several UK universities, the eSTI² project is still in the prototype phase. Current devices are mobile phone compatible chips that (if manufactured) would cost around $30 and are the size of a flash drive. eSTI² recently received £5.7 million ($9.2 million) in funding and has plenty of brain power to keep it moving forward. When completed, the smart phone enabled device could serve to slow the spread of STIs through the UK, and help halt the global AIDS epidemic. …Or it could make you feel better about all those one night stands you’ve been having. Either way.
It’s still early enough in the eSTI² development process that the final form of the device isn’t yet known. Current plans are to develop chips that use nanotechnology to detect the presence of microorganisms or related human antibodies. Prototype devices could be constructed to handle saliva, blood, or urine. What is certain is that Sadiq and his colleagues are focusing on making the eSTI² device as cheap and mobile as possible. Prices could fall to $5, and analysis (which would likely take place in the cloud) should be able to return results in less than 15 minutes.
Even with more than $9 million in funding, the goals of eSTI² seem very ambitious. That is, until you look at similar technologies which are already on the market today. Diabetes blood testing has finally made its way to smart phones using dedicated hardware that plugs directly into the mobile. Blood collection, disposable sample holders, and other paraphernalia are already on the market at very low prices. Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA has developed a $10 microscope for mobile phones that quickly diagnoses diseases by sending optical images to analytical programs on remote servers. That project has won awards and is set for trials in Africa. There are many other lab-on-a-chip projects which are nearing completion which could have similar benefits in medicine (including screening for HIV). The Xprize is trying to get an AI doctor on your smart phone. eSTI² may be aiming high, but their goals seem very achievable considering the current state of research.
The benefits of their success would be astronomical. Billions of people all over the world have mobile phones and billions more will get one in the decades ahead. Cell phones are shaping up as the definitive universal technology of the early 21st century. The eSTI² project is custom fit, then, to leverage mobile phones to combat sexually transmitted diseases. How quickly might we stem the tide of HIV when we can put a $5 testing device in the hands of millions of people around the world?
Of course, the problems with STIs extend outside of the developing world and HIV. Incidence rates for major STIs in the UK have risen nearly 40% over the past decade. In general, the social stigma attached to testing for STIs has kept people all over the world from seeking medical attention as needed. This is a larger part of why eSTI² (which stands for self testing instrument for sexually transmitted infections) could be so helpful. It’s hoped that self-testing will increase overall screening rates considerably, possibly to a point where sexually active people use the device on themselves (and perhaps their partners) before every sexual encounter.
As promising as the eSTI² is, there’s no guarantee that it will ultimately succeed. The nanotechnology that will enable the chip to detect pathogens or the immune system response will need years of development before it’s ready for clinical trials. Even then, it will take many more years of testing before we can be sure that eSTI² will be effective in the hands of untrained individuals. There will be hurdles in security – if we use cloud computer processing for analysis then you’ll be sending personal information out into the ether. Developers will also have to determine how to deal with false negatives/positives and how and when to direct users to medical professionals. The path forward for eSTI² is far from clear, but in a decade, we might have STI testing available on mobile phones worldwide. Until then, get over your shame and get tested. Every three months, people!