Smartphones are becoming almost uncomfortably smart.
British medical researchers are working to develop dongle-sized computer chips that could enable home-testing of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The patient would put urine or saliva on the chip, plug it into a phone or computer, and get back a diagnosis in minutes, reported The Guardian on Friday. Britain's Medical Research Council and six other funders have put $6.5 million dollars of money into developing the chips. The researchers envision chips being available from vending machines in nightclubs and pharmacies, like condoms are today, and costing just a dollar or two.
The notion is for the device to make the prospect of STI testing less daunting for young people—over half of those reporting new infections are under 25. "Your mobile phone can be your mobile doctor. It diagnoses whether you've got one of a range of STIs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea and tells you where to go next to get treatment," Dr. Tariq Sadiq of St George's, University of London, and head of something called the "Electronic Self-testing Instruments for Sexually Transmitted Infections consortium," told The Guardian.
We reached out to Dr. Sadiq, who confirmed that The Guardian's report was accurate and that he was "quite pleased with the way it described our aims." He adds that "we are also looking at other infections and applications both in the developed and developing world."
Some onlookers are skeptical of the feasibility of Sadiq's and his colleagues ambitions. "If they say that's what they're aspiring to that would be terrific, but unfortunately there's no such test yet—at this stage it's just fantasy," Professor Basil Donovan, a leading Australian sexual health researcher, told the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that a recent article looked at home testing kits for chlamydia "and they were just a joke," delivering accurate results only about 10% of the time. Yet even this skeptic conceded he thought that "in our lifetime it will happen."
Sadiq is much more sanguine. "The technology really has moved forward very quickly," he tells Fast Company. "We think devices like these will be technically feasible in a matter of 2-3 years," but evaluating their accuracy, impact, and potential dangers before getting them approved for general use could take several years more. "We think we may see them perhaps between 7-10 years time," he sums up.
Even if the technology became ubiquitous, how enticing would it be to use? Visiting a doctor may seem daunting—but so does plugging a USB device containing extremely personal information into your smartphone. It's far too easy to imagine a scene from American Pie 27, in which a hapless youth accidentally broadcasts his recent gonorrhea diagnosis all over Facebook.
[Image: Flickr user sekido]