South Coast Researchers Develop Smartphone App That Can Detect Bacterial Infections In Patients

Mar 22, 2019

Imagine your phone telling you if you have a bacterial infection. There’s now a tool designed for clinics, hospitals and doctor’s offices that can do just that. UC Santa Barbara researchers developed a smartphone app that allows users to detect bacteria at a low cost in under an hour, which can be life-saving.

Inside a lab at UC Santa Barbara, Lucien Barnes, a PhD student in biology, demonstrates how this phone can detect bacteria.

“This patient urine specimen has bacteria in it, but you can’t really see it. And what our app is going to do is break open the bacterial cells and detect the DNA in it,” he says.

It’s a smartphone app that can diagnose infections inexpensively and within a short timeframe, which makes this new technology ideal for clinics with limited resources.

Barnes first prepares the urine sample. Then, he inserts the sample into a strip of test tubes over a hot plate…each tube containing a different reaction chemical that can detect a different bacteria -- such as e. coli or salmonella. A cardboard box with a hole at the top is placed around the apparatus, and the camera phone is placed over the hole. Through the app, a few test tubes appear to glow.

Barnes says that means bacteria is detected.

“The bright green ones are where the reaction chemicals have met with the bacterial DNA and have started to make extra copies of the DNA that’s used to test,” he says.

Barnes is part of a team of researchers at UCSB that developed this app that can potentially be a game changer for the health care industry by providing a low-cost and quick diagnosis of a bacterial infection -- including sepsis and staph infections. And, it can be conducted by a non-expert at even the most remote locations around the globe.

“We wanted to do something for the medically underserved. ‘What does everybody have around the world?’ And we did some research. And in the deepest jungles of Africa, the chief of tribe has access to a cell phone,” says UCSB microbiology professor Mike Mahan, who spearheaded the project.

He says the smartphone is a powerful tool.

“Your phone is a computer. And this is the first demonstration of it used as a stand-alone device,” he says.

Doug Heithoff, a scientist in Mahan’s lab, says the app is especially helpful in detecting urinary tract infections, which can cause miscarriage in pregnant women if found too late.

“It takes a problem of where there is an unmet medical need for diagnosing urinary tract infections, which are very common. Turns out it’s rather expensive to be able to identify the bacterial organism that causes the infection,” he says.

But he says that’s not the case with the app. The test can be performed with a smartphone, along with a lab kit that costs under $100. And the diagnosis is fast.

Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease physician at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara who consulted on this project, says it can take between 24 and 72 hours for lab results whereas this app takes a fraction of that time.

“I could be taking care of a sick patient and within an hour of obtaining that patient’s urine that I could use this technique to know what bacteria was causing their infection and really target my treatment immediately and accurately, I think is a tremendous advance,” she says.

Dr. Jeffrey Fried, a critical care physician at Cottage who also collaborated on the research, says the app can be life-saving for critically ill patients.

“The faster you appropriately treat an infection, the more likely the patient is to survive,” he says.

Mike Mahan’s son Scott who was a student intern on the project says the hope is that it helps low-income patients at clinics where resources are limited.

“All they do is pee on stick. It tells you you might have an infection while our technology can tell you exactly which bacteria you are infected with and how infected you are,” he says.

Mike Mahan says he’s trying to make a difference.

“Our motto in our lab is to change the world,” he says.

Mahan is working with Cottage Hospital to get his app and lab kit used in their hospitals and clinics. And eventually he hopes to create a home kit so that literally anyone can use it.