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Home Ebola testing with a Tricorder? There's an app for that

DNA-testing peripherals for smartphones are here. And DNA can change your day

Last year, if you’d walked off a flight from West Africa running a high fever, you’d very quickly find yourself quarantined to test for the Ebola virus. The length of your stay in quarantine would depend on how long it took to run the required tests.

A genetic test remains the gold standard for infectious agents. Every bacteria and every virus has its own genetic signature, like a fingerprint. Genetic tests can also discriminate between the various strains of a bug – less lethal versus more lethal versus zombie apocalypse.

But genetic testing is neither fast nor cheap. So your stay in quarantine could be lengthy while you wait for a sample to traverse meatspace. And longer still if a courier mislays something.

This year, if you walk off a flight from Brazil running a fever, you’ll quickly find yourself in quarantine, as public health officials do what they can to stem the spread of the Zika virus, believed to be the cause of a recent increase in infant microcephaly.

But you might only find yourself in quarantine for a few minutes.

The reason for this is the transition to fast, on-demand genetic testing delivered by an iPhone peripheral that looks a bit like a Bluetooth speaker. Pop the top open, inject the samples into the specimen containers, and a rapid PCR (polymerase chain reaction, since you asked) process clones the DNA thousands of times, shooting various lasers through it. The reflection or absorption of those beams tells you what bug you're hosting.

Within two minutes, your iPhone – connected via Bluetooth to the control electronics – gets a reading, which it then processes and measures against the expected results, rendering a verdict: infected or clean.

Welcome to the era of smartphone-powered pathology.

We’ve already seen how the smartphone can replace the expensive dedicated computer in a 3D scanner and do a better job at a far lower cost. That’s now happening to the full range of medical and clinical devices, as the smartphone becomes the brains behind a revolution in accessibility and price. The expensive machine that goes ‘ping!’ has become the smartphone that surfs Bing.

The company that engineered the handheld genetic tester – Biomeme – immediately set to work on the most important tests: Ebola, Zika, and Malaria. Governments around the world have queued up to use their tech, because a quick diagnosis is cheaper (and substantially easier) than the alternative. But that’s just the beginning of what’s possible.

At a few thousand dollars, Biomeme’s analyser isn’t the kind of thing you’d find in an average home. Nor, thankfully, is there much demand for a home Ebola test. But there’s many more bugs that aren't killers. As we learn more about bacteria, we have come to understand they are integral to our health.

There’s lately been a lot of research into the human ‘microbiome’, that combination of gut and skin flora symbiotically cohabiting with us throughout the course of our lives. We know they’re around, but we don’t know very much about them – because it’s difficult to sample our microbiome. Tests are slow and expensive.

Two years from now, when Biomeme hopes to release a consumer-level genetic testing lab, all of that changes. We’ll be able to sample and measure our microbiomes as often as we like, feeding those results into the growing stream of data from all of the other connected devices we use to manage our wellness – our smartwatches, sleep monitors, scales, sphygmomanometers, blood glucose testers, etc.

For the first time, millions will be able to correlate the lives that share our bodies to our own health. We’ll be able to measure the microbiome, and for millions who suffer with various intestinal and metabolic disorders, this could well represent a singular improvement in their quality of life.

And that’s just the beginning. Use cases extend far beyond the human: a farmer testing soils; a health inspector testing a water supply; a botanist in search of a rare plant – all of them will benefit greatly by a cheap, handheld genetic testing lab. If it lives, it has genes, and those genes can be sampled, amplified, and then detected.

As amazing as all of this tech is, it’s still miles from the on-demand full-genome sequencing of GATTACA. But that, too, is on the cards, as the price of a full gene sequencing drops below the thousand dollar mark – and the smartphone assumes its central role as coordinator of all the connected gadgets.

We’ve been dreaming about the imminent arrival of a Star Trek-style tricorder since we first got smartphones. It’s already here, but still a wee bit pricey. Before long, it will be cheap, and everywhere. ®

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