Baby jaundice is a common, but potentially fatal, condition in newborns. Researchers have found a way for parents to spot jaundice using their smartphone and an app.

With the word jaundice, one would think the yellow tinge would be easy to spot, but it is actually quite difficult and, if left untreated, the infant can become very sick.

"Virtually every baby gets jaundiced, and we're sending them home from the hospital even before bilirubin levels reach their peak," said James Taylor, a University of Washington professor who worked on the project. "This smartphone test is really for babies in the first few days after they go home. A parents or health care provider can get an accurate picture of bilirubin to bridge the gap after leaving the hospital."

Jaundice is the result of a buildup of a substance called bilirubin in the blood and tissues of the body. Bilirubin is a natural byproduct from the breakdown of red blood cells and is normally metabolized by the liver. If the liver is not functioning properly, this can cause the excess bilirubin to tinge the skin yellow.

If not treated, jaundice can cause brain damage in the baby or a condition called kernicterus.

The app, called BiliCam, involves the parents taking a picture of their newborn with a color key laid on the baby's belly. The information is sent to the cloud where an algorithm will determine whether the parents should get a blood test for their child for jaundice.

A smartphone is more portable than the expensive screening tools available in hospitals and doctors' offices, so it would be ideal for parents who live far away from a doctor.

Information is sent to the cloud instead of being assessed on the smartphone because stored information on the cloud allows the algorithm to be refined.

The app, developed by a UW team, is currently still in the testing phase, but the team hopes to get it into doctors' hands for additional testing and then eventual FDA approval.

The team still plans to test the app on up to 1,000 newborn infants - particularly the ones with a darker skin pigment.

"We're really excited about the potential of this in resource-poor areas, something that can make a difference in places were there aren't tools to measure bilirubin but there's good infrastructure for mobile phones," Taylor said.

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