Device could improve anaemia detection in developing regions

A team of Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering undergraduates has developed a non-invasive way to identify women with anaemia in developing nations.

Dubbed HemoGlobe, the device is designed to convert the existing mobile phones of community health workers into so-called ‘prick-free’ systems for detecting and reporting anaemia, which is said to contribute to 100,000 maternal deaths and 600,000 newborn deaths annually.

In places where medical care is easily accessible, doctors routinely test pregnant women for anaemia and prescribe treatment, including routine iron supplementation.

However, in developing regions where medical help is not always nearby, the condition may go undetected. Community health workers with limited training do, however, serve these areas.

‘The team members realised that every community health worker already carries a powerful computer in their pocket: their cell phone,’ said Soumyadipta Acharya, an assistant research professor in Johns Hopkins’ Department of Biomedical Engineering and the project’s faculty advisor and principal investigator. ‘So we didn’t have to build a computer for our screening device and we didn’t have to build a display. Our low-cost device will use the existing cell phones of health workers to estimate and report haemoglobin levels.’

According to the university, the device’s sensor, placed on a patient’s fingertip, shines different wavelengths of light through the skin to measure the haemoglobin level in the blood.

On a phone’s screen, a health worker sees a colour-coded test result indicating cases of anaemia, from mild to moderate and severe. If anaemia is detected, a patient would be encouraged to follow a course of treatment, ranging from taking iron supplements to visiting a clinic or a hospital.

After each test, the phone would send an automated text message with a summary of the results to a central server, which would produce a real-time map showing where anaemia is prevalent. This information could facilitate follow-up care and help health officials to allocate resources where the need is most urgent.

The HemoGlobe student inventors have estimated that their mobile-phone-based systems could be produced for $10 to $20 (£6 to £13) each.

A provisional patent covering the invention has been obtained through the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer office and the technology recently received a further boost in the form of the award of a $250,000 seed grant in the ‘Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development’ competition.