The digital health revolution is in full bloom. Tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft are all offering their own take on fitness applications and health-monitoring tools. An entire industry exists around activity trackers from Fitbit to Garmin to Jawbone.
David Erickson, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is working to add another important health device to the mix. Erickson’s lab has spent the past several years developing “lab-on-chip” technology that can quickly measure health and nutrition markers, from cholesterol to vitamin B12 levels, by harnessing the power of your smartphone.
The iPhone Camera, a Cholesterol Monitoring Device
To do this, the researchers built an accessory that clips to the camera corner of an iPhone. It’s no bigger than a credit card reader or camera lens attachment. A user can put a drop of blood, saliva, or sweat onto a test strip and insert the strip into the accessory. The strip runs an immunoassay, which changes color based on the concentration of certain biomarkers. The iPhone’s camera can then record those color changes, and with a few taps on a specially designed application, the results appear on-screen.
Erickson’s group first demonstrated the technology’s capabilities with an application that reads cholesterol levels. The results were published in a 2014 paper in Lab on a Chip; to date it has the highest social impact of any paper published in the journal. The response makes sense given that 70 million Americans have high cholesterol, which puts people at risk for heart disease and stroke. Elevated cholesterol levels do not have signs or symptoms, however, so it is difficult to detect without heading to the doctor’s office.
“How can we help people get that information easily?” Erickson asked when he first began the research.
In collaboration with Saurabh Mehta in Nutritional Sciences and Geri Gay in Information Science, Erickson and his team are now working toward the NutriPhone. When they began working on this project, few tools were available that offered individualized and precise nutritional feedback. The lab considered developing small boxes or stand-alone gadgets. “But what happened was a convergence of our work with the uptick in smartphones. The obvious thing to do was latch onto the smartphone,” says Erickson.
Transferring Mobile Technologies to the Marketplace
“The challenge now is in developing a successful business and deployment model,” says Erickson. “Universities are really good at taking the high level risk of finding out what will work, and what people will or won’t adopt in early stage tech development. Startups are good at trying to shoehorn it into a successful company. They can develop the expertise in manufacturing and early sales.”
Erickson’s lab is further developing applications and tests for a variety of other health and nutrition markers beyond cholesterol, including vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, and more.
The research will continue to feed into product development, as Erickson and his colleagues received a $3 million National Science Foundation grant for the purpose of further developing the technology and smartphone applications.
The PHeNoM (Public Health, Nanotechnology and Mobility) program, funded in August 2014, focuses on developing and deploying three systems: NutriPhone to measure nutrition, Stress-Phone for stress management, and Hema-Phone for monitoring viral loading in HIV-positive patients. For the program, Erickson leads a team of researchers from across Cornell’s campuses, including Cornell NYC Tech and Cornell Weill Medical College, along with partner universities, University of Maryland and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Beyond the research element, PheNoM will help transfer newly developed technologies to the marketplace by working with existing mobile health startups such as ASY Health. The grant also funds a combination of coursework, business plan development, and pre-seed grant workshops for entrepreneurial endeavors.
Erickson says he’s glad to have gotten onboard with smartphone diagnostic development early on. “The ubiquitous deployment of smartphones only became apparent three or four years ago,” he says. “That’s when we started. Now we have all of this intellectual property and that’s why everyone is coming to us.”
Solar PCR for Identifying Genetic Markers for Viruses
In another area of his work, Erickson’s lab employs the smartphone for global health diagnostics. The lab developed a portable, low-cost, low-power kit called SolarPCR, which performs nucleic acid–based diagnostics thanks to solar heat and a smartphone. “SolarPCR measures things that are a little more complicated than just cholesterol and vitamins,” says Erickson. “We look at genetic markers for viruses.”
The kit works by performing polymerase chain reaction (PCR)—a common lab technique that amplifies a single or a few copies of DNA to generate thousands to millions of copies. PCR typically requires electricity to cycle the reaction through heating and cooling periods. Erickson’s device instead channels that move through different temperature zones, controlled by access to solar heat. A smartphone then records the reaction.
SolarPCR produces test results within 30 minutes to an hour. But most important, it’s portable and requires little to no infrastructure. It can be taken to remote settings where there may not be many medical services, as long as there is cell phone reception.
“SolarPCR measures things that are a little more complicated than just cholesterol and vitamins,” says Erickson. “We look at genetic markers for viruses.”
By enabling PCR through this method, the researchers can identify viruses from small amounts of patient DNA samples. Erickson’s lab focuses on viruses that have a global health impact and has already built an assay that tests for an AIDS-related cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma.
The research is at the foundation of A’As, a startup company that is commercializing the SolarPCR technology.
Cornell’s Collaborative and Entrepreneurial Spirit
Erickson explains that being at Cornell has helped to transition his research from proof-of-concept to viable products. “There’s a broad range in expertise that supplicates the ability to build up the collaborations,” says Erickson, who as an engineer, needed to tap experts in the areas of nutrition and global health. He also credits early venture funds from the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and licensing support from the Center for Technology Licensing at Cornell (CTL), going on to say “there’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit at Cornell.”