Innovative, Low-Cost Medical and Diagnostic Tests

In the developing world, the availability of many medical technologies is limited by cost, durability, and ease-of-use. This is especially true of expensive diagnostic devices, which are critical for detecting diseases that are endemic in developing countries. However, researchers are working to develop low-cost, user-friendly alternatives that could improve the ability of healthcare providers to diagnose a range of conditions.

Harvard researchers have developed an alternative microfluidic device that replaces standard silicon, glass, or plastic substrates with treated paper. Fluids flow through the microchannels in the paper device in the same way that they would in a standard chip. Researchers have used the device to test for glucose and protein in urine, but hope to adapt it for the possibility of testing blood samples for HIV/AIDS, dengue fever, or hepatitis. While a traditional microfluidic device costs between $10 and $1,000USD, the materials to create the paper devices, known as microPADS, cost only three cents. The design of the microPAD device allows for several tests to be conducted simultaneously, furthering the cost and resource savings.

To help better diagnose infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, researchers have developed a microscope that attaches to any cellular telephone with a camera feature. The device, known as a CellScope, is able to illuminate pathogens in a sample treated with fluorescent molecular “tags.” It is estimated that the production of first CellScopes will cost roughly $1,000 each, but with further developments the price could drop to just a few hundred dollars, including the cell phone. Not only can an individual use the microscope to view the pathogens, but they can also send an image to a healthcare facility for assistance making an appropriate diagnostic determination.

Efforts have also been made by scientists at the Burnet Institute to improve HIV-testing procedures. A prototype monitoring test has been designed for use in remote settings. The new test, which uses a finger-prick blood sample, allows individuals to determine their CD4+ T-cell count within 30 minutes. The CD4+ T-cells are critical for healthy immune system function and their levels are a deciding factor with regard to starting anti-retroviral therapy. Standard CD4 tests are often not available in the developing world due to their cost, the need for specialized equipment and trained personnel, and the long wait period to obtain test results.

Though these diagnostic technologies offer improvements in the developing world, as The Wall Street Journal reports, acceptance may be slower in the United States. Some researchers have found success when applying African healthcare models to rural areas of the U.S., and results using low-cost technologies originally conceived for use in the developing world may follow this trend. The use of innovative low-cost testing methods may also assist with telemedicine initiatives, as they allow healthcare providers to conduct necessary tests and provide better diagnostic information to consultants. Through discussion among global health experts – as allowed by telemedicine initiatives like iCons in Medicine – innovative diagnostic tools and other cost-saving measures may become more popular, and help to provide improved care worldwide.

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