Disease diagnosis, courtesy of your smartphone's touchscreen

Mobile devices may be the newest tools for diagnosing disease, but not in the way you might think.

The newest way for smartphones and tablets to detect disease won't be through apps loaded onto the phone, but from biological samples read on the phone's touchscreen itself, according to new research from the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology.

In one interesting twist, the concept could make the burgeoning lab-in-a-chip industry irrelevant--turning the smartphone itself into a diagnostic platform, rather than simply a receiving device for diagnostic data, according to a report in New Scientist.

The concept builds on the way a touchscreen senses the "capacitance," or the electric charge capability of a user's finger. Researchers realized the average touchscreen is far more sensitive to capacitance than is really needed for just sensing a fingertip, and decided to see how they might use that sensitivity, New Scientist reports.

"[Because] these touchscreens can detect very small capacitance changes, we thought they could serve as highly sensitive detection platforms for disease biomarkers," co-author Hyun Gyu Park says.

So they put droplets with three differing concentrations of DNA from the bacteria that cause Chlamydia to a small touchscreen display. According to researchers, the touch-sensing electrodes were able to identify each of the different concentrations by their capacitances.

It's not enough yet to identify a specific pathogen, bloggers at iMedicalApps point out, but it's a solid first step. Ultimately, the hope is that the touchscreen can pick out bacteria or other disease from fluids as diverse as sputum, blood, saliva or even urine. And if along the way, researchers can find ways to overcome interference from things like sweat, moisture, etc., they'll be on the road to a whole new method of mobile diagnostics.

To learn more:
- read the New Scientist article
- check out the iMedicalApps coverage