This Incredible Attachment Turns Your Phone Into An HIV And Syphilis Test

Diagnosis easier around the world–both in communities with no electricity and in your house.

This Incredible Attachment Turns Your Phone Into An HIV And Syphilis Test
[Top photo: Undrey via Shutterstock]

As we’ve seen many times, smartphones have great potential to cut the cost of basic medicine and expand access to previously excluded groups. From eye exams to ultrasound, the mobile health revolution is great news for people in developing countries and less good news for companies that rely on sales of high-priced equipment.


Samuel Sia‘s smartphone diagnostic kit is particularly impressive because it not only slashes the cost of identifying HIV and syphilis infections, it also does it in a low-power way. His attachment doesn’t need its own battery and it’s not drawing a lot of power from the phone’s battery either. That means it could be more useful in the field, particularly in off-grid locations where electricity supply is an issue.

His kit is made of an attachment that plugs into a smartphone and a disposable microfludic kit that mixes a blood sample with reagents and other chemicals. To perform a test, you clean someone’s finger, prick it to produce a small amount of blood, and channel it into the chip by pressing a small negative-pressure ball. Then press a button on the phone and wait 15 minutes for a result.

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“The important thing is that we are drawing all the power from the phone,” says Sia, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University. “That’s an achievement because we’re doing all the things these other diagnostic instruments can do.”

The kit performs the equivalent of what’s called an “enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay” which can cost as much as $18,000 in traditional lab settings. The dongle costs $34 to make, while the chip is worth about $1.50. And that’s before mass manufacturing has brought down the price further. Sia’s kit is currently designed for HIV and syphilis, but he says the technique could be adapted for diabetes and types of cancer as well.

Work on the device has been funded by USAID, the Gates Foundation, the government of Norway, Grand Challenges Canada, and the World Bank. It’s been tested in Rwanda, with its Ministry of Health. Its first applications are likely to be in global health, as a way to expand access to diagnostics. However, Sia sees other applications as well, including testing here in the United States.


He gives an example from his own life. A recent check-up revealed pre-diabetic markers that caused him to change his diet and exercise routine. But afterwards he wanted to check again if the changes were effective. To go back to a doctor would be expensive, as his health insurance might not cover more than one check-up. So, something like his dongle might be useful for home care.

“I would like to monitor those biomarkers again but I don’t know if my insurance will pay for it. Wouldn’t it be great if I could make that choice myself and the price points are low enough that I can pay for it?,” he says.

It might. Potentially smartphone-health could expand access to healthcare to all kinds of people, both in the developing world and nearer home.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.