iPods, Androids Could Be Cancer-Detection Tools

BY Talea Miller  September 1, 2011 at 3:20 PM EST

iPods charging. Photo by Flickr user Stephen Hackett.

Cancer screening…is there an app for that?

Not quite, but a newly developed device run by an iPod Touch, iPad or Android tablet could help diagnose cancers in poor or rural settings, researchers say.

The hand-held and solar-powered system, called a Gene-Z, can perform genetic analysis of blood samples in the field when connected to a consumer tablet like the Android.

When a patient has cancer, certain changes occur in microRNAs — molecules that regulate genes — that can be detected by the device.

The tool could be especially valuable to communities in low-income countries that are far from health centers, said Syed Hashsham, an environmental engineering professor at Michigan State University, who developed the device with colleague Jim Tiedje and Erdogan Gulari at the University of Michigan.

“It’s not replacing the existing powerful [cancer detection instruments], it is extending the arms of those devices to reach a much larger population,” Hashsham said.

To run a test, a blood sample is placed on a credit-card sized lab chip, called a microfluidic chip.

The chip is then inserted into the Gene-Z, where the sample is heated, and chemical reactions and processing are led by the device. Detectors then send readings of the sample back to the iPod or Android system, which shows the results to the health worker on hand.

The tablet also acts as a way for the health worker to control the Gene-Z system. Different chips are used to diagnose different sets of cancers and each chip will have a bar code that the iPod or Android can read, preparing the device to run a specific test.

The beauty of the device, Hashsham said, is that while a lot is going on inside, it’s extremely simple for the user.

“It can be used by anyone, by someone who is not educated, by women in a village or high school students,” he said.

The device, which may also eventually be used to diagnose other diseases like tuberculosis or HIV, now has to be tested in clinical settings around the world, an effort that will be led by Reza Nassiri, director of MSU’s Institute of International Health.

There are also many unanswered questions about how to link up better diagnosis with treatment in developing countries, but the hope is that early detection could also lead to more affordable treatment for country health systems, Nassiri said.

Other issues yet to be worked out include who would be best suited to inform patients of their results, and what health worker support might be needed on site in the event of a positive outcome.

The researchers are trying to keep the costs as low as possible –the microfluidic chip used in the system costs a few dollars, and the device could be priced at under $1,000.