Affecting approximately 60 percent of newborns, jaundice can cause brain damage or even death if left untreated. In sub-Saharan Africa, where doctors often don't have access to expensive diagnostic equipment, babies are 100 times more likely to die of the condition than are infants in the US. A new low-cost device, however, could drastically reduce that number.

Jaundice is caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream and is ideally diagnosed via laboratory analyses of blood samples, using machines such as centrifuges or spectrometers. Because physicians in developing nations often lack such well-equipped labs, they instead judge whether or not a newborn is jaundiced simply by assessing the color of both its skin and the whites of its eyes – not always a reliable indicator.

That's where BiliSpec comes in.

Developed by a team from Houston's Rice University, the handheld battery-powered device quantifies bilirubin levels on the spot within about two minutes, from a small drop of whole blood. The tool itself is designed to be inexpensive, with each paper-strip test costing about 5 cents to perform. Its accuracy is said to be comparable to that of "more expensive laboratory tests found in high-resource settings."

In a two-month clinical study conducted early this year at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, the device was used to successfully diagnose 68 patients. Plans now call for a more extensive two-year study, to be conducted at five hospitals in Malawi.

BiliSpec is one aspect of NEST360°, which is an international project aimed at bringing life-saving technologies for newborns to African hospitals. There's more information on how the device works, in the video below.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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