HIV, syphilis test? There could soon be an app for that

  Biomedical engineers at Columbia University have developed a dongle, a piece of hardware that attaches to the headphone jack of iPhones and other smartphones,…

Biomedical engineers at Columbia University have developed a dongle, a piece of hardware that attaches to the headphone jack of iPhones and other smartphones, that in this case serves the purpose of being a do-it-yourself HIV test.

This could revolutionize the way sexually active people test themselves for HIV and other sexually transmitted disease. This dongle contains a one-time-use cassette which screens blood for markers of HIV and syphilis using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA).

SEE ALSO: 7 in 10 HIV patients are lacking treatment in the U.S.

ELISA tests are among the top screening methods used to detect diseases, lead engineer Samuel Sia told Live ScienceAll it takes is a simple skin prick to put a drop of blood in the cassette.

Once the blood sample enters the ELISA cassette, an app on the smartphone reads the results. All in all, the process takes about 15 minutes.

Dongle would serve as a detector for HIV and syphilis

There are approximately 20 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) each year in the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control indicate the total number of STIs in the country number somewhere around 110 million. Though there are many different types of STIs, HIV and syphilis are among the most feared.

HIV currently affects more than 1.2 million people in the U.S., and many don’t know they carry the infection. Syphilis, a highly contagious bacterial STI, can be easily treated if caught in time; however, more than 10,000 cases are still reported annually, and if left untreated the infection can cause arthritis, brain damage and blindness, according to WebMD.

For people concerned about their on-going STI status, community health departments often offering discounted or free screening services, but such offers can be time consuming and few or far between. For people worried about HIV or syphilis this option might take away the hassle of getting tested out of the equation.

Students at Columbia University have created an iPhone “dongle” that acts as a 15-minute HIV detector. (Photo: Columbia University)

“In the U.S. actually, there’s a trend towards providing a lot of health care services away from hospitals— it’s infrastructure-heavy and expensive, and you really shouldn’t have to be there,” Sia told “Catching diseases is about being proactive and preventative … [with these accessories] I think you could actually see a lot of savings, and more privacy and convenience.”

Why just HIV and syphilis at the moment? Developers explained it is because those two STIs are passable from mother to child if a woman is pregnant. Globally, syphilis and HIV present serious health complications, especially in developing nations. The smartphone test offers a way to screen individuals in regions where electricity may not always be available.

“That doesn’t mean other STDS aren’t on the list— they are, and other non-STDs are,” Sia said of the dongle. “But these are priority because of the burden of disease and seriousness of disease, and how treatable they are.”

SEE ALSO: ‘Do I have syphilis?’– symptoms and treatment

The ELISA cassettes won’t cost a significant amount of money, either. Sia says current estimates put the price somewhere around $34. While there may be some concerns about keeping medical information private on a smartphone, developers feel there are more pros than cons to this type of technology. Though the dongle will be useful to people in developed nations, the real goal is to provide an easy means of testing for populations that might not have access to other services.