Undergrads invent cell phone screener to combat anemia in developing world

This conceptual image illustrates how the HemoGlobe anemia screening device, slipped onto a patient's finger, would connect with a health worker's cellphone to display the test results. Credit: JHU

Could a low-cost screening device connected to a cell phone save thousands of women and children from anemia-related deaths and disabilities?

That's the goal of Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering undergraduates who've developed a noninvasive way to identify women with this dangerous in developing nations. The device, HemoGlobe, is designed to convert the existing cell phones of into a "prick-free" system for detecting and reporting anemia at the community level.

The device's sensor, placed on a patient's , shines different through the skin to measure the in the blood. On a phone's screen, a community health worker quickly sees a color-coded test result, indicating cases of anemia, from mild to moderate and severe.

If anemia is detected, a patient would be encouraged to follow a course of treatment, ranging from taking iron supplements to visiting a clinic or hospital for potentially lifesaving measures. 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 anemia is prevalent. This information could facilitate follow-up care and help health officials to allocate resources where the need is most urgent.

Soumyadipta Acharya, an assistant research professor in Johns Hopkins' Department of Biomedical Engineering and the project's faculty advisor and principal investigator, said the device could be important in reducing anemia-related deaths in developing countries. International estimate that anemia contributes to 100,000 and 600,000 annually.

"This device has the potential to be a game-changer," Acharya said. "It will equip millions of across the globe to quickly and safely detect and report this debilitating condition in pregnant women and newborns."

The HemoGlobe student inventors have estimated their cell phone-based systems could be produced for $10 to $20 each. At the recent Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development competition, the potential public health benefits of this device won over the judges, who awarded a $250,000 seed grant to the Johns Hopkins students' project. The event, which attracted more than 500 entrants from 60 countries, was sponsored by prominent global health organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Only 12 entrants received seed grants.

"When we thought about the big-name corporations and nonprofit groups we were competing against, we were amazed and surprised to find out that our team had won," said George Chen, 19, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering. Chen attended the July 14 announcement in Seattle, along with Acharya and team members Noah Greenbaum and Justin Rubin.

For a biomedical engineering design team class assignment, the students spent a year brainstorming and building a prototype. The seed grant will allow the team to refine its technology and support field testing next year in Kenya by Jhpiego, a Johns Hopkins affiliate that provides global health training and services for women and their families. Jhpiego sponsored the HemoGlobe project through a partnership with the university's Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design.

Team member Greenbaum, 21, of Watchung, N.J, a senior majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering, has continued working on the anemia system this summer.

"The first year we just focused on proving that the technology worked," he said. "Now, we have a greater challenge: to prove that it can have a real impact by detecting anemia and making sure the mothers get the care they need."

The student inventors were looking for a new way to curb a stubborn health problem in developing nations. Anemia occurs when a person has too few healthy red blood cells, which carry critical oxygen throughout the body. This is often due to a lack of iron, and therefore a lack of hemoglobin, the iron-based protein that helps red blood cells store and release oxygen. Anemic mothers face many complications before and during birth, including death from blood loss associated with the delivery. In addition, a baby that survives a birth from an anemic mother may face serious health problems.

in developing countries have tried to respond by making widely available. According to Acharya, however, the problem of anemia remains intractable. "So we looked at it from a different angle," he said.

In places where medical care is easily accessible, doctors routinely test pregnant women for anemia and prescribe treatment, including routine iron supplementation. But 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 realized that every community health worker already carries a powerful computer in their pocket -- their cell phone," Acharya said. "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 hemoglobin levels."

A provisional patent covering the invention has been obtained through the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer office.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Low iron levels slow down female athletes

Nov 21, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Female athletes with low levels of iron in their bodies, yet who are not anemic, may be at a disadvantage even before their competitive season starts, according to a new Cornell study. These athletes could ...

Genetic form of anemia defined molecularly

Apr 01, 2010

Sideroblastic anemia is a form of anemia caused by an inability to incorporate iron into hemoglobin, something that is essential if the molecule is to perform its vital function of carrying oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. ...

Recommended for you

Student seeks to improve pneumonia vaccines

3 hours ago

Almost a million Americans fall ill with pneumonia each year. Nearly half of these cases require hospitalization, and 5-7 percent are fatal. Current vaccines provide protection against some strains of the ...

Seabed solution for cold sores

4 hours ago

The blue blood of abalone, a seabed delicacy could be used to combat common cold sores and related herpes virus following breakthrough research at the University of Sydney.

Better living through mitochondrial derived vesicles

Aug 19, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—As principal transformers of bacteria, organelles, synapses, and cells, vesicles might be said to be the stuff of life. One need look no further than the rapid rise to prominence of The ...

Zebrafish help to unravel Alzheimer's disease

Aug 19, 2014

New fundamental knowledge about the regulation of stem cells in the nerve tissue of zebrafish embryos results in surprising insights into neurodegenerative disease processes in the human brain. A new study by scientists at ...

Engineering new bone growth

Aug 19, 2014

MIT chemical engineers have devised a new implantable tissue scaffold coated with bone growth factors that are released slowly over a few weeks. When applied to bone injuries or defects, this coated scaffold ...

User comments