Design & Innovation

The $25 Chemical Scanner That Runs Off Cell Networks

One smart device that can carry out an extraordinary range of tests

1 min read

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Image credit: Damien Pollet
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From testing blood for Ebola to searching water for lead, Harvard biomedical engineer Alex Nemiroski wants to simplify how we perform chemical scans to share the powerful science with as many people as possible. He’s developed a handheld device that only costs $25 and works just about anywhere on the planet that a cellphone will. It’s called the universal mobile electrochemical detector, or uMED to its friends.

In essence, uMED’s a souped-up version of the common blood glucose meter that diabetics use every day. A blood glucose exam is a kind of electrochemical test–a droplet of blood is placed onto a chemically active test strip, and the more glucose there is within the blood, the stronger the electrical signal is from the strip. “Blood glucose meters are a powerful platform to work from. They’re so easy to use. Everyone uses them across the world,” Nemiroski said.

In principle, by developing the right test strips and a device that can analyze them, one can rapidly carry out an extraordinary variety of electrochemical tests with just one detector. Scientists have developed test strips that can detect toxic metals such as lead and cadmium in water for environmental monitoring, as well as proteins from diseases such as malaria, Ebola and HIV in blood, urine, and other bodily fluids for medical testing.

Instead of integrating a computer into the invention, uMED hooks up to a mobile phone to upload the raw data it gathers for analysis in the so-called “cloud.” It translates its data into an audio signal that can be transmitted over the voice channel of virtually any cellular network, just like an old-fashioned dial-up modem once did. A computer can then receive this raw data via Skype, process it, and return its results back to the phone. It works with any mobile phone with a headphone jack, and it does not require an advanced smartphone, or 3G or 4G networks.

Nemiroski’s colleagues performed a field trial with uMED prototypes this past summer in New Delhi. “We learned a lot about how people want to use this kind of device,” he said. They found that what clinics in New Delhi most wanted was a way to perform a basic metabolic panel: measuring blood levels of compounds, such as glucose, electrolytes, and urea, to screen for medical problems like dehydration, heart failure, kidney damage, liver failure, drug overdose, osteoporosis, and heart and brain function.

“A basic metabolic panel is routinely and simply done in labs in the U.S., but over there in India it isn’t,” Nemiroski said. “By helping clinics over there do basic metabolic panels, we hope we can really help make a difference, catching problems a lot earlier before they spin out of control.”

Nemiroski and his colleagues detailed their findings online in August 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, work funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They are working with nonprofit enterprise Diagnostics For All in Cambridge, Mass., to develop the uMED further.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Design & Innovation section, which looks at new devices, concepts, and inventions that are changing our world. Click the logo to read more.