Global Health Press
Mobile health technologies to rapidly test and track infectious diseases

Mobile health technologies to rapidly test and track infectious diseases

Early-warning sensor systems that can test and track serious infectious diseases – such as major flu epidemics, MRSA and HIV – using mobile phones and the internet are being developed by Newcastle scientists.

The major new Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration (IRC) led by UCL (University College London) and working with Newcastle University scientists has been awarded £11 million.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) with a total investment of £16 million, its aim is to develop mobile health technologies that allow doctors to diagnose and track diseases much earlier than ever before.

Researchers from different disciplines, policy makers, industry and clinicians will work together at the IRCs to ensure that their research leads to the maximum benefit for healthcare users as rapidly as possible.

The project is part of a £32 million investment from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which establishes three new Healthcare Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations (IRCs).

Welcoming the centres, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: “New British technologies are transforming healthcare and saving lives, for example, in future, our smart phones will tell us when we are ill, controlling the spread of infectious diseases. As healthcare challenges become more complex, our world-class scientists are finding the next generation solutions.”

The IRC brings together scientists, engineers and clinicians from UCL, Imperial College, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Newcastle University, together with NHS stakeholders UCL Partners, Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the UCLH and Newcastle NIHR Biomedical Research Centres, Public Health England and industry partners – OJ-Bio, Microsoft, Cambridge Life Sciences, Mologic, O2 Health, Zurich Instruments, XFAB and Cepheid.

The IRC will pioneer low cost, easy to use mobile phone-connected diagnostic tests based on advances in nanotechnology for use in GP surgeries, pharmacies, elderly care homes, developing countries and at home.

The mobile tests aim to identify diseases with high sensitivity and specificity and give results within minutes from just a pin-prick of blood or a simple swab. Rapidly transmitting results into secure healthcare systems will alert doctors to potentially serious outbreaks with geographically linked information.

The IRC will also track reported symptoms of infection by searching millions of internet sources including media reports, search engine queries (e.g. Google Trends and Bing) and social networking sites (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) to identify outbreaks even before people attend clinics or from parts of the world that lack the resources for traditional public health surveillance.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions, 2.7 billion people on-line and 1 billion social network users, representing a massive opportunity to widen access to tests and track emerging disease outbreaks.

Professor Calum McNeil, lead investigator from Newcastle University said: “For me the EPSRC IRC is a long-term ambition come true. It presents a fantastic opportunity to work with world-leaders in nanotechnology, engineering, bioinformatics and communications technologies in order to provide real-time predictive, preventive, point-of-care healthcare provision – a hugely exciting undertaking.”

Early diagnosis plays a vital role in the treatment, care and prevention of infectious diseases. However, worldwide, many infections remain undiagnosed and untreated or are diagnosed at the late stage due to poor diagnostic tools. The result is on-going transmission of serious infections and delays in the identification of emerging threats.

Dave Delpy, CEO of EPSRC said: “Today’s healthcare challenges are many and complex; designing and integrating technologies that will help clinicians to diagnose and monitor patients is where the cross-disciplinary research we are funding at these IRCs can play a vital role. EPSRC funds projects that can make a real difference to people’s lives, the efficiency of our healthcare system and to the economy.”

To meet the needs of end users, the team will work closely with leading NHS clinicians from UCL Partners and Newcastle NHS Trusts, NIHR Biomedical Research Centres, Public Health England, patient groups and the public to address the wider issues of increased testing, care pathways and data security. The centre also benefits from links to more than 100 countries in Africa, Asia and South America via the LSHTM International Diagnostics Centre led by Professor Rosanna Peeling.