A Mobile Device That Uses Your Blood Or Spit To Quickly Detect Disease

The winner of the Nokia Sensing X Prize is already doing rapid HIV testing, without needing a lab–or even electricity.

A Mobile Device That Uses Your Blood Or Spit To Quickly Detect Disease
[Image via Shutterstock]

The $2.25 million Nokia Sensing XChallenge, a two-part X Prize competition to advance sensing technology that collects data about human health and the environment, has its first winner: Gene-RADAR, a product from the nanotechnology incubator Nanobiosym that accurately detects any disease with a genetic footprint using just a drop of blood or saliva. The entire diagnosis process only takes an hour, and there’s no electricity, running water, or lab required.


All of the finalists in the competition consisted of so-called “lab-on-a-chip” technologies–tiny devices that measure everything from heart rate to blood pressure to stress levels.

“I particularly like the fact that you can connect these sensors to computing devices, which are close to everybody,” says Henry Tirri, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Nokia (the chief sponsor of the competition). “I’m also quite excited to see non-invasive technologies–detection where you don’t need things to be attached to the body.”

Tirri believes these dedicated devices–and not sensors integrated directly into smartphones–are the future. “There are logical and business reasons why this trend cannot continue forever, partly because you want to have much more specialized capabilities for sensors. The second reason is that there’s a huge accessory ecosystem going on. A lot of these devices need to measure something particular from your body, and it’s hard to think about the form factor of a mobile phone attached to your wrist or forehead,” he says.

Nanobiosym received a $525,000 grant prize for its work; the team has already begun designing real-time pilot testing for HIV diagnoses in Rwanda. The Rwandan Ministry of Health and Partners in Health have agreed to help roll out clinical trials. Nanobiosym has also reportedly developed E. coli testing for the Gene-RADAR platform.

Cost wasn’t a factor in determining the winner of the challenge, though something like Gene-RADAR could only work on a large scale in developing countries if it was cheap enough. “We’re not specifically judging on characteristics of affordability and cost, but we are looking at commercialization potential and ease of use,” says Eileen Bartholemew, vice president of Prize Development at the X Prize Foundation. Presumably, those two factors eventually drive down manufacturing costs.

The next Nokia Sensing XChallenge–the exact same competition but with different teams–is already open for registration. So far, more than 46 teams have applied. The winner will be announced in July 2014.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.