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New app can aid tropical disease treatment

pharmafile | May 8, 2015 | News story | Medical Communications, Sales and Marketing Merck, app, smartphone, tropical diseases 

A new smartphone app is able to automatically detect parasites in the blood and may mark a fundamental shift in handling tropical diseases.

Treating the parasitic diseases river blindness and elephantiasis with the drug ivermectin (originally developed by Merck) can sometimes be fatal in patients with high levels of Loa loa worm. However, testing for these parasites is usually time consuming and requires specialist training. 

Researchers have now been able to use a modified smartphone to automatically test for the worm. A drop of blood is place in a handheld box, and a smartphone on top uses an app to look for movement in the sample that indicates presence of the parasite.

“With one touch of the screen, the device moves the sample, captures video and automatically analyses the images,” Professor Daniel Fletcher, one of the researchers, tells the BBC.

Healthcare workers can then see the predicted number of Loa loa worms in the blood and decide whether the patient is suitable for treatment. So far the process has only been tested in early trials in Cameroon, but these have been successful and the researchers are now planning to investigate it in a further 40,000 people.

As the device requires little training to use, it could make treating tropical diseases much easier for at-risk populations. There are also plans to adapt the app to test for other infections, including malaria and tuberculosis. 

The range of apps used for medical research has exploded recently, with smartphone software being used to test for respiratory conditions, fake antimalarial drugs and jaundice in babies among many other things. 

Apple has recently launched ResearchKit, a dedicated platform for using iPhone apps in clinical trials.

All this has inevitably raised questions around regulation of new health technologies. In the UK, the NHS has launched plans to kitemark certain approved apps, while the FDA has released draft guidance dictating what firms can and cannot claim about wearable health tech.

Apple itself has recently changed ResearchKit’s guidelines to state that all apps must be approved by an independent ethics review board. 

And in a recent article for the BMJ, GP and medical commentator Des Spence warned of the potential dangers of health software – saying that some ‘untested and unscientific’ apps play on the fears ‘unhealthily health-obsessed generation’ and could lead to over-diagnosis and medical harm. 

George Underwood

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