Drug resistance? There’s an app for that!

Meet your future doctor. (Photo credit:Kārlis Dambrāns).

by Olivia Botting

Drug resistance? There’s an app for that!

A legion of scientists have created a cheaper alternative to DNA-analysing lab kits. They have produced a smartphone attachment which they say could help treat tuberculosis, cancer and other illnesses more effectively than is currently possible in developing countries.

The innovators of this new technology say that it could help doctors and medics analyse tissue samples without sending these samples off to a remote laboratory. The attachment uses information carried in our DNA to make diagnoses—a more efficient way of treating patients in remote locations. In some cancers, tumours contain mutations which grant resistance to some drugs. This resistance is shown in DNA in these tissue samples, which would then aid doctors in prescribing the most effective treatments. They also say that the technology can be used to identify the source of infections; if it is viral or bacterial, and if it is bacterial, if there are any antibiotic-resistant genes present.

The portable pathology microscope was developed in co-operation by the University of California, Stockholm University and Uppsala University. They believe it could be widely produced for around £406 ($500) per 3-D printed unit, so much cheaper than the costs of a DNA lab testing kit.

Professor Mats Nilsson, from Uppsala University in Sweden, was part of the team who developed this smartphone microscope. He suggested that the device could be introduced with immediate effect in rural India, in the treatment of tuberculosis. He said; “currently, it’s a trial and error thing—they start with the first-line drugs even if one knows that only fifty percent of the patients will respond, since resistance is so widespread.”

The issue with this approach is that it can take up to three months to follow up, and in that time people can spread the disease. With this new technology, they can treat patients with the right antibiotics at the time of diagnosis, “And the only way to figure that out in the short-term is an affordable and simple DNA test.” Says Professor Nilsson.

The charity, Cancer Research UK, suggested that this new way of examining DNA has a place in the developed world as well. Dr Justine Arnold, the organisation’s Senior Science Information Officer said that treatments can be personalised to the patient more effectively once the doctors know the precise make-up of the cancer—informed by expensive and time-consuming DNA tests. However, she’s still skeptical; “this early study suggests mobile phone technology could potentially speed up this process and reduce costs, but much more research is needed to find out if it’s reliable and accurate enough to make it’s way into the clinic.”

The device already faces rivalry. Oxford Nanopore Technologies has already developed small handheld equipment in order to analyse strings of DNA , which it says provides richer information than looking for mutations at a single point. The company is now in the process of adapting this into something that can be plugged into smartphones.

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