Mobile technology uses saliva to detect disease

A long-awaited mobile testing kit for saliva--designed to detect a host of serious conditions including cancer, heart disease and HIV--will be ready to launch around year's end, according to a an early-release story from ScienceNews.

The technology is based on "programmable bio-nano-chips" or PBNCs, and isn't exactly lightweight, requiring an analyzer machine that weighs 11 pounds. But it is portable, reading disposable test cards imbued with just a few drops of the patient's saliva, like an ATM or other card-swiping machine.

The analyzer looks for protein markers in the fluid that indicate the patient is having a heart attack, for example, and alerts clinicians within minutes rather than hours.

The technology has been a long time coming. Creator John McDevitt of Rice University started developing the PBNCs more than 15 years ago. And researchers have long known that diagnostic-level biomarkers lurked in saliva, although they couldn't seem to find them easily, according to ScienceNews.

But that may have changed. The new PBNC device has shown sensitivity to some proteins with up to 97 percent accuracy, according to human trials that began early this year, and are wrapping up now.

Industry watchers first noted the emerging technology in 2008, predicting it would revolutionize field diagnostics. This time around, however, it seems the technology is ready for prime time, with officials from biotech firm Force Diagnostics telling ScienceNews they will have a final device ready for real-world applications within a few months.

McDevitt says he's hopeful the technology will ultimately work to predict disease, not just diagnose it. A study recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology gives him some support, showing tracking and controlling levels of the protein NT-proBNP in cardiac patients may lower the chances of future stroke, heart attack, and other crises.

To learn more:
- read the Science News article
- check out the Houston Business Journal's coverage from February

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