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The $34 Phone Accessory That Tests For HIV and Syphilis

Researchers have developed a device that runs antibody tests in less than 30 minutes.

Columbia University researchers have developed a smartphone attachment that can test for HIV and syphilis in just 15 minutes—and all it takes is a prick of the finger. The device—called a dongle—connects to an iPhone or iPad through the audio jack, and it can basically execute the same function as a lab-quality blood test. In this case, it performs a biochemical test that detects and measures the presence of HIV or syphilis antibodies in the blood. This is the first time this kind of detection process has been consolidated into a single-test format.

The dongle doesn’t even need to be charged—it draws power from the phone. Users prick the subject’s finger and load the blood sample onto a plastic cassette, which is then inserted into the dongle. One push of the button and, a few minutes later, the results display on the phone or tablet screen. The process is so easy that new users require little more than 30 minutes of training. All of these features make the dongle a practical solution for health care workers in developing countries—in fact, they tested out the dongle with a team of health care workers in Rwanda and found that 97 percent of patients said they would recommend the process, because it took so little time and effort.

And it’s not just efficient, it’s also low-cost. The dongle has a manufacturing price of $34. Compare that to the $18,450 price tag of industry-standard testing machines.

“Our dongle presents new capabilities for a broad range of users, from health care providers to consumers,” said Samuel K. Sia, a lead reasearcher on the project. “By increasing detection of syphilis infections, we might be able to reduce deaths by 10-fold. And for large-scale screening where the dongle’s high sensitivity with few false negatives is critical, we might be able to scale up HIV testing at the community level with immediate antiretroviral therapy that could nearly stop HIV transmissions and approach elimination of this devastating disease.”

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