Your Phone Could Scan People For Diseases Soon

by : Hannah Smith on : 09 Dec 2020 15:34
Your Phone Could Scan People For Diseases SoonPixabay/PA

A new gadget could let anyone scan people for diseases using their smartphone, with the inventors saying the technology could be rolled out within two years.

iGenomics pairs a handheld DNA sequencer – a bit like the ‘tricorder’ used by Spock in Star Trek – with an app that essentially turns your smartphone into a mini genetics lab.


Its creators say the device could help combat the spread of viruses like COVID-19 in the future, and believe that it could be in use among both healthcare workers and regular members of the public by 2022.

PA Images

A report published in Gigascience explains how iGenomics uses an algorithm to quickly map DNA sequences of viral pathogens, such as a flu or Zika virus, as well as specific virus mutations.

Professor Michael Schatz, iGenomics co-creator, saidt the continued advances in smartphone technology means complex processes like DNA sequencing may no longer require complex lab equipment:


Today, we all carry professional cameras in our pockets. So it’s not that hard to imagine in the next couple years, all of us carrying our own DNA sequencers on our smartphones, as well.

There’s just so many opportunities to do measurements of our environment and look for pathogens – maybe even do scans of yourself.

The iGenomics app was programmed by Aspyn Palatnick, a Facebook software engineer. Palatnick started working on the technology as a high-school student, initially partnering with Professor Schatz eight years ago as an intern at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory – a research facility specialising in genomics. Palatnick’s software is available on iOS and as open source code through GitHub.


Palatnick’s goal was to create an app that could be used in tandem with new mini DNA sequencing devices being made by UK firm Oxford Nanopore Technologies.


He said:

As the sequencers continued to get even smaller, there were no technologies available to let you study that DNA on a mobile device. Most of the studying of DNA – aligning, analysing – is done on large server clusters or high-end laptops.

Palatnick and Schatz say the device could be used to diagnose everything from COVID to sexually transmitted diseases. And while it might be pretty funny to think about fake-diagnosing your mate with an STD, the creators have some slightly more noble plans for iGenomics. The app uses AirDrop to transfer the sequencing data, meaning the device can be used for DNA analysis even without internet access. Schatz believes that this portability could help expand healthcare and analysis in remote locations, making genome studies more accessible and affordable.

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Topics: Science, App, disease, DNA, smartphone, Tech


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