Smartphone-based diagnostic devices allow doctors in resource-poor regions to perform tests that would otherwise involve sending samples off to a distant lab. Most such devices, however, can only analyze individual samples. By contrast, a new one can check 96 samples for diseases, all at one time.

Known as the mReader, the portable device was designed by a Washington State University team led by assistant professor Lei Li, working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania's associate professor Ping Wang.

It contains 96 sample wells, each one of which can be loaded with fluid samples from individual patients. Users add a reagent to those samples, causing them to change to a specific color if a target biomarker is present. A smartphone mounted on the device then takes a photo of all the samples, with a computer program subsequently analyzing the color of the samples in that photo, determining if each patient is infected with the malady in question – the program can identify 12 common viral and bacterial infectious diseases.

Besides checking samples from 96 different patients for a given one of those 12 diseases, Li tells us that the mReader could also theoretically be loaded with 12 separately-treated samples from eight patients, with the program then checking if each person had any of the diseases.

And while it's possible for doctors to assess the color of samples simply by looking at them, doing so is often inaccurate. When tested on 771 patient samples, on the other hand, the mReader displayed an accuracy rate of 97.59 to 99.9 percent – that's almost as good as what would be achieved at a fully-equipped lab.

The prototype version of the device cost approximately US$50 to make, although that figure would likely drop if it were to be manufactured on a large scale. A patent has been filed, and clinical trials are now being planned.

"This smartphone reader has the potential to improve access and speed up healthcare delivery," says Li. "If we find out about infections, we can treat them more quickly, which makes a difference especially in low-resource, remote areas."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Clinica Chimica Acta.

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