mHealth’s revolutionising healthcare. Dr Ralph Weissleder and Dr Hakho Lee from the Center for Systems Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital are making a huge transformation. They’re responsible for creating the D3 system, an mhealth solution for digital diffraction diagnosis. Born of Dr. Weissleder’s efforts to improve healthcare in remote parts of Africa, D3 is said to be convenient, efficient and easy to use. The device attaches to a smartphone, allowing the phone to take images of cells and samples and provide an accurate diagnosis within an hour. It drastically cuts waiting times and has the potential to save countless lives.
An article in Massachusetts General Hospital explains how the D3 system works. First, a doctor collects cells from a patient, either from a blood sample, a fine needle biopsy or, if cervical cancer is suspected, a Pap smear. The cells are then loaded onto a tiny slide, which is pushed into the D3 imaging system using a clip-on device attached to the smartphone. D3’s imaging module with a battery-powered LED light uses the smartphone’s camera to record a high-resolution image. It has more power than a traditional microscope.
The idea for 3D originated a few years ago, when Dr. Weissleder was in South Africa to learn how technology could improve healthcare for people living in remote areas. Many African countries have too few pathologists, and lab results are often delayed. Even in developed countries, like the US, biopsy results can take over a week to get back.
When Dr. Weissleder saw that even in Africa’s remote areas, people were using smartphones, he realised mobiles can improve and support healthcare. Work on D3 started soon after. The team added a coin-sized battery to address the sporadic electricity supply, a common challenge for providers in Africa.
There have been two pilot studies. At Massachusetts General, D3 reliably and rapidly reported whether cervical biopsy samples were high-risk, low-risk or benign. The results showed that D3 performed as accurately as pathologists. D3 also fared well in a second pilot study, where it correctly recorded the difference between samples from four patients who had lymphoma and four who had benign tumors.
D3 works by processing blood or tissue by sending tiny antibodies to find cancer-related molecules. When these antibodies detect cancer, they light up. “The smartphone picks up the shining of the antibodies when the photo is snapped. And researchers can use this signal to diagnosis a patient with cancer,” Dr. Weissleder says.
Dr. Weissleder envisages D3 having many applications for many different settings. In a large hospital, D3 could provide faster test results for patients. At home, it might help patients monitor their diabetes or detect sexually transmitted diseases. The technology could be used for other diseases in Africa and help track malaria, TB, HIV and avian flu outbreaks.
Cell phones have changed the world says Dr. Lee says, adding, “The next big push will be healthcare applications, and we are excited to lead the way.” The team’s about to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health for a large clinical trial in Africa.