How a $34 iPhone Device Tests for HIV and Syphilis in 15 Minutes


A cheap, accessible way to test for STDS may no longer be a medical pipe dream.

Researchers from Columbia Engineering have developed a smartphone accessory that can test for HIV and syphilis, providing results in less than 15 minutes. The mobile diagnostics lab requires just a finger prick of blood and works off the battery life of your smartphone.

The device itself resembles a gutted walkman and plugs into the headphone jack. After blood is drawn from a simple fingerprick, it’s placed in a disposable cassette that connects to a microfluidic chip containing substances used to analyze the blood. The chip with the sample is then plugged into the device attached to the smartphone. Within about 15 minutes, results are sent via an app. Faster than it takes to say, “I swear, I just got tested last month.” Well, almost.

According to the team, a 4th generation iPod Touch has the potential to test 41 patients on a single charge. The dongle is estimated to cost $34, compared to traditional lab equipment that can run more than $18,000. For remote locations where access to electricity and a full laboratory remains difficult or impossible, the 15-minute mobile test provides a low-cost answer to reducing mortality in high-risk areas and situations.

Health care workers were given 30-minutes of training during a field test in Rwanda before screening 96 patients for HIV and active and latent forms of syphilis. In comparison to gold standard lab tests, the device was 96 percent accurate in detecting infections, researchers reported in Science Translational Medicine.  

Despite the 14 percent false alarm, the creators are looking to run a bigger trial and improve the dongle’s accuracy.