Smartphones can do a lot of things from waking you up in the morning to tracking your fitness activities. Now a group of engineers has made the device a lot smarter.

The team from Columbia University has come up with a compact and handheld device that when plugged into the iPhone can turn it into a portable laboratory that can be used to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis and HIV in as short as 15 minutes using finger prick of a person's blood.

The device called a dongle was tested on 96 individuals who were treated in community health centers in Kigali, Rwanda and 97 percent of these patients said that that they prefer it over laboratory-based tests due to the convenience the device offers in providing quick results.

Antonio Urbina, from The Mount Sinai Hospital's Institute for Advanced Medicine, said that other self-tests for HIV are delivered to laboratories or use oral fluid costing as much as $20,000. The dongle, which he described as a game changer in home diagnostics, can replicate tests that are done using more expensive equipment.

"In a blinded experiment, health care workers obtained diagnostic results in 15 min from our triplex test that rivaled the gold standard of laboratory-based HIV ELISA and rapid plasma reagin (a screening test for syphilis), with sensitivity of 92 to 100% and specificity of 79 to 100%, consistent with needs of current clinical algorithms," the researchers reported in their study published in the Science Translational Medicine on Feb. 4.

The device could also have a significant impact in countries where expensive lab equipment does not exist. The researchers who developed the dongle made it with the aim of making it easier for healthcare workers in remote areas to identify individuals infected with life-threatening sexually transmitted disease.

The researchers said that a rapid and reliable test that can be done anywhere could be a life saver in places such as Rwanda. Currently available HIV and syphilis test cost up to $8.50 combined and by the time it is completed after more than 2.5 hours, the patients are already gone.

An earlier research has shown that if such a test can correctly identify 70 to 80 percent of infected individuals and 70 to 80 percent of those who are not, it can reduce the number of deaths by a factor of 10 compared with traditional tests.

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