Students at Johns Hopkins University have invented a sensor that turns a smartphone into an inexpensive blood analysis tool that screens for anemia, a serious medical condition in poor countries.
The bioengineering undergraduates unveiled their device, the HemoGlobe, at an awards ceremony in Seattle in July. A sensor, similar to one that is used to measure blood oxygen levels, attaches around a patient’s fingertip. The sensor shines a light through the finger, and the light’s various wavelengths measure the color of the blood under the skin, reports David Szondy of Gizmag. Different colors correspond to different levels of hemoglobin in the blood.
The cell phone acts as a display for the sensor, with color codes showing whether the patient has anemia, and, if so, to what degree. The device then sends the results to a server where it generates a real-time epidemiological map of anemia cases in the area, information that health officials can use.
Anemia is a scourge in the developing world, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein that is carried by red blood corpuscles, and gives blood its color. The disease occurs when red corpuscles in the blood are either unhealthy or there are too few of them. The result is that the body cannot effectively transport enough oxygen to tissues, causing illness and even death.
There is a number of causes of anemia: blood loss, congenital illness, parasites, radiation, cancer, vitamin deficiencies, or a simple lack of iron. The disease is particularly hard on women in developing countries, where more than 100,000 women die annually of maternal anemia, and 600,000 newborn infants die as well.
Medical tests to detect the condition are often unavailable. Conventional tests, such as blood cell counts, smear tests, serum iron tests, and others can detect the condition before it becomes serious, but poor countries often lack the facilities and trained personnel to perform these tasks.
That’s where HemoGlobe comes in. Exploiting a paradox in poor countries — where there is often a lack of clean water or a reliable power grid but there are plentiful cell phones — the students used the resources at hand.
HemoGlobe was developed as part of a competition for a $250,000 seed grant funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The team from John Hopkins was one of 12 winners out of 500 competing teams from 60 countries. The prize money will be used to perfect the device and fund field testing next year in Kenya.
Source: “HemoGlobe device works with a smartphone to detect anemia,” Gizmag, 7/26/12
Image by Iceclani, used under its Creative Commons license.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.