Sunday, February 27, 2011

Smartphone app that helps doctors detect cancer

Smartphone app that helps doctors detect cancer

Jacob Aron, technology reporter


(Image: C. Min/H. Lee/R. Weissleder)
The jury is still out on whether cellphones cause cancer, but now a new smartphone-controlled device could help doctors diagnose the disease. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have developed a system that can detect tumours by analysing a few thousands cells, sparing patients from the larger biopsies currently used.

The palm-sized device sits on the patient's bedside table, operated through a simple smartphone app. At the core is a micro nuclear magnetic resonance (microNMR) chip, a scaled-down version of the technology found in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. It works by using magnetic nanoparticles to measure protein levels, looking for specific markers that indicate the presence of cancer. Doctors can see the readout from the chip on their phone's screen.

The researchers used the device in a trial of 50 patients - by combining the readings of four protein markers they were able to correctly detect cancer in 96 per cent of cases. A second trial of 20 patients achieved 100 per cent accuracy, while current methods for detecting cancer are only 84 per cent accurate. The smartphone-equipped device is also much faster than current methods, providing results in under an hour compared to the usual three day wait.

Don't expect to see doctors swap their clipboards for smartphones just yet, though: the researchers say that the device isn't quite ready for clinical use. One problem is that the relevant protein markers aren't always present in cancer cells, which could lead to misdiagnoses. The proteins are also short-lived, meaning that cells should be analysed soon after they are extracted.

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