Mobile Heath: Low-cost cell phone device fights anemia

Mobile Heath: Low-cost cell phone device fights anemia

 By Phil Sneiderman-JHU:  A low-cost device that connects to cell phones may help save hundreds of thousands of anemic mothers and children who die each year in developing countries. The device, called the HemoGlobe and invented by bioengineering undergraduates, has the potential to convert the cell phone of a community health worker into a noninvasive, “prick-free” system for detecting and reporting the dangerous blood disorder in pregnant women.

“This device has the potential to be a game-changer,” says Soumyadipta Acharya, an assistant research professor in the department of biomedical engineering atJohns Hopkins University and the students’ faculty adviser. “It will equip millions of health care workers across the globe to quickly and safely detect and report this debilitating condition in pregnant women and newborns.”


The device’s sensor, placed on a patient’s fingertip, shines different wavelengths of light through the skin to measure the hemoglobin level in the blood. The connected phone’s screen quickly displays a color-coded test result, indicating cases of anemia, from mild to moderate and severe.

If anemia is detected, a patient could get treatment, ranging from taking iron supplements to visiting a clinic or hospital for potentially lifesaving measures. After each test, the phone also would send a text message to a central server, updating a real-time map showing where anemia is prevalent. That could facilitate follow-up care and help health officials allocate resources where the need is most urgent.

International health experts estimate that anemia contributes to 100,000 maternal deaths and 600,000 newborn deaths annually. The Johns Hopkins student inventors believe their cell phone-based systems could be produced for $10 to $20 each.

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At a recent competition, judges awarded a $250,000 seed grant to the project. The event, which attracted more than 500 entrants from 60 countries, was sponsored by prominent global health organizations, including the US Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Only 12 entrants received seed grants.

“When we thought about the big-name corporations and nonprofit groups we were competing against, we were amazed and surprised to find out that our team had won,” says George Chen, a sophomore biomedical engineering major.

The students had spent a year in a biomedical engineering design course brainstorming and building a prototype. The seed grant will allow the team to refine its technology and support field testing next year in Kenya by Jhpiego, a Johns Hopkins affiliate that provides global health training and services for women and their families. Jhpiego sponsored the HemoGlobe project through a partnership with the university’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design.

“The first year we just focused on proving that the technology worked,” says Noah Greenbaum, a senior biomedical and electrical engineering major. “Now, we have a greater challenge: to prove that it can have a real impact by detecting anemia and making sure the mothers get the care they need.”

Anemia occurs when a person has too few healthy red blood cells, which carry critical oxygen throughout the body. This is often due to a lack of iron, and therefore a lack of hemoglobin, the iron-based protein that helps red blood cells store and release oxygen. Anemic mothers face many complications before and during birth, including death from blood loss associated with the delivery. In addition, a baby that survives a birth from an anemic mother may face serious health problems.

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In places where medical care is easily accessible, doctors routinely test pregnant women for anemia and prescribe treatment, including routine iron supplementation. But in developing regions where medical help is not always nearby, the condition may go undetected. Community health workers with limited training, however, often serve these areas.

“The team members realized that every community health worker already carries a powerful computer in their pocket—their cell phone,” says Acharya. “So we didn’t have to build a computer for our screening device, and we didn’t have to build a display. Our low-cost device will use the existing cell phones of health workers to estimate and report hemoglobin levels.”

A provisional patent covering the invention has been obtained through the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer Office.

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