Heal Thyself

HIV virus. Coloured transmission electron micrograph of HIV viruses budding from the surface of a host T-lymphocyte white blood cell (bottom). The viruses are here acquiring their viral membrane (red) from the host cell plasma membrane as they depart. NIBSC/Science Photo Library/Ge

They might not have electricity or running water, but some of the world's poorest communities might soon have a way of quickly diagnosing diseases on the spot.

With a drop of blood or saliva, iPad-sized Gene-RADAR can detect deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in less than an hour, its creator, Dr. Anita Goel, told Newsweek. The device is about to be field-tested in Africa.

Gene-RADAR, which recently emerged from the laboratories of Nanobiosym, a Cambridge, Mass.-based technology incubator, uses a computer chip to scan bodily fluids for specific strips of genetic code that signify the presence of an infection.

The device's software then analyzes the data providing a near-instant yet perfect diagnosis. Gene-RADAR is so easy to use its operation does not require trained medical personnel. And it will cost far less than conventional lab tests, said Goel.

The rapid turnaround from a sample to diagnosis is especially important in countries like Rwanda, where less-effective, cheap AIDS tests abound. These "quick and dirty" tests, Goel adds, still require final confirmation from a lab. In these countries, which have so few medical facilities, the process can take up to six months.

"What we're doing is bringing that gold standard capability outside of a lab infrastructure into a mobile device," she said. "The idea is to really empower people to take control over their own health and manage their own health in a timely way."

Goel said Gene-RADAR not only has implications for the approximately 4 billion people who don't have access to basic health care. At some point it could also be tailored to perform DIY triage at home that will save general health-care costs. Worried parents, for example, could test to see whether their child's high fever is from a cold or whether it's something far worse before rushing for treatment at a hospital emergency room.

Gene-RADAR and similar devices also have tremendous preventive potential, said Dr. Sara Brenner, who serves as assistant vice president for nanohealth initiatives and is assistant professor of nanobioscience at the State University of New York, Albany.

Making diagnosis easier, she said, allows patients to treat diseases before they have "gone haywire." Brenner does not think Gene-RADAR or similar devices have the same risks as other direct-to-consumer diagnostic devices such as 23andMe, an at-home gene screening product. The FDA recently ordered Google-backed 23andMe to stop selling its services, saying it was being marketed as a diagnostic tool without proper approval - which geneticists worried would spur patients to seek out invasive, costly medical treatments that may prove unnecessary.

"Unlike 23andMe, which provides a lot of genetic information [that] we do not know how to interpret, this type of diagnostic test would simply be a faster and more accurate way to do what we already do within the laboratory," she says. "The benefit of a rapid diagnostic that's accurate will outweigh the risks."

News of the forthcoming field tests comes amid other initiatives to bring impoverished communities cheap and effective medical tools, such as a Portland, Oregon company's recent testing of a portable, battery-powered device that screens for cervical cancer.