In the future, troops may be able to use their smartphones to diagnose and detect biological pathogens in the field.
Scientists at the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center have developed two clip-on attachments for an Android phone that can do just that, and they plan to test the devices within the next couple months.
The first attachment is a clip-on microscope that fits over the camera and can be used to identify a disease in blood or a pathogen in water, said Peter Emanuel, biosciences division chief at the ECBC.
To use the device, the soldier puts a sample of blood or water on a slide, coats it with special dye and inserts it into a chamber beneath the microscope. When a photo is taken, LED lights surrounding the chamber interact with the dye, causing a specific agent such as salmonella to fluoresce, Emanuel said. Then, an application downloaded to the phone determines whether the sample contains that specific agent.
The device currently can test for salmonella, anthrax, strep pneumonia and yersinia pestis — more commonly known as the bubonic plague — said Patricia Buckley, the principal researcher on the project.
The second attachment turns the phone into a handheld assay reader that can upload the data to the cloud and tag it on a map using Google Earth.
In the next few months, Army and National Guard soldiers across all four continental U.S. time zones will test the assay readers and map the results, which will be used by a battlefield commander at 20th Support Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., to form a common operating picture, Emanuel said.
Outside of military applications, the assay reader could also benefit medical practitioners in isolated areas, he said. For example, the Centers for Disease Control could use it to diagnose diseases such as malaria.
“This is really an effort to show the utility of smartphones as the Swiss Army knife of the 21st century,” he added. “You can clip on device number one … and use it to diagnose disease in blood, and then you can take it off and then you can clip on peripheral number two, and now that device can read a handheld assay.”
Development of the microscope and assay reader attachments was fully funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s joint science and technology office and the joint program executive office for chemical and biological defense, respectively. The challenge, now, is proving to the acquisition community at JPEO that the technology is “ready for prime time,” Emanuel said.
ECBC also is bidding to secure funding to develop its own military-specific smartphone hardware and applications for reading and diagnosing chemical agents, he said.
UCLA Professor Aydogan Ozcan developed the hardware and software currently being used in ECBC’s attachments for detecting biological agents.
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