Yet More Handheld DNA Testing

The spread of smartphones has made high resolution digital cameras common, if not ubiquitous, and mobile devices have ever increasing computational and network capabilities. Inevitably, these devices are matching and exceeding conventional laboratory equivalents, at far lower cost. This presents opportunities to develop low cost procedures to improve medical scanning, even where medical infrastructure may be limited.

This week Malte Kühnemund and colleagues from Uppsala and other institutions describe a low cost microscope that attaches to a smart phone [2]. The device can be used to conduct quick, “point of contact” analyses of DNA point mutations, to aid detection of drug resistance and other features.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on microscopy or DNA-based diagnoses.)

As far as I can understand, the smartphone is basically providing a digital camera and image processing computation, generating visualizations on the phone’s screen. The phone slides into a device that includes lasers and sample handling gear, and the materials must be carefully prepared as for any microscopic study.

In other words, with this device, you turn your phone into a genuine microscope, equipped with image processing software.

UCLA, Stockholm University and Uppsala University
UCLA, Stockholm University and Uppsala University


Note that it does not mystically analyze DNA for you, or make you able to practice genetic medicine with no training. You still have to know how to take samples and use a microscope, and what the heck the results mean. This device does put a decent microscope in the hands of health workers, at reasonable cost, even if labs and pathologists are unavailable.

mobile-phone-enabled molecular diagnostic analysis may provide a simple, cost-effective and yet powerful means to integrate molecular marker information with traditional morphology analysis and might further help digital molecular pathology become widely accessible at POC offices and even in resource-limited settings.” ([2], p. 4)

While smartphones may be nearly ubiquitous, turning one into an effective medical device requires careful and detailed work to validate that it really works and gives accurate results.  This study is a good example of what is needed.

What you can’t do is just announce that you are going to “disrupt” DNA testing, and drop beta to the world.

Leo Kelion reports for the BBC that this is one of a number of such innovations [1]. He notes a device from Oxford Nanopore that does even longer “DNA reads”, which will soon be available as a mobile phone attachment.  In principle, the latter device should have even more uses than the rather specialized device.

Clearly, we are entering a time when it will be possible to carry a sophisticated medical laboratory on your mobile device. Cool!

  1. Leo Kelion,  DNA-testing smartphone aims to tackle drugs resistance. BBC News.18 January 2017,
  2. Malte Kühnemund, Qingshan Wei, Evangelia Darai, Yingjie Wang, Iván Hernández-Neuta, Zhao Yang, Derek Tseng, Annika Ahlford, Lucy Mathot, Tobias Sjöblom, Aydogan Ozcan, and Mats Nilsson, Targeted DNA sequencing and in situ mutation analysis using mobile phone microscopy. Nature Communications, 8:13913, 01/17/online 2017.


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