Mobile phone-based saliva test wins NIH prize

Cornell researchers’ concept for a quick, non-invasive, mobile phone-based system to detect infectious diseases, inflammation and nutritional deficiencies in saliva was awarded a $100,000 National Institutes of Health Technology Accelerator Challenge prize.

The NIH’s prize challenge encourages the development of new, non-invasive diagnostic technologies important for global health.

The Cornell team is led by Dr. Saurabh Mehta, associate professor of global health, epidemiology and nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, in the College of Human Ecology (CHE), and the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

Other team members are David Erickson, the SC Thomas Sze Director and Sibley College Professor in Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Julia L. Finkelstein, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and in Global Development; research associate Balaji Srinivasan; and postdoctoral associate Bryan Gannon.

For the group’s saliva-based test, a small 3D-printed adapter is clipped to a mobile phone and synced with a mobile app. The app uses the phone’s camera to image test strips to detect malaria, iron deficiency and inflammation, with results in under 15 minutes.

The proposal builds on the FeverPhone and NutriPhone platforms developed by the team at Cornell’s Institute for Nutritional Sciences, Global Health and Technology (INSiGHT). The technologies, funded by the NIH and the National Science Foundation, evaluate infections and nutritional status using blood.

According to Mehta, technologies using salivary biomarkers could revolutionize how conditions such as malaria and iron deficiency are identified and addressed, especially in settings where access to primary health care and traditional, laboratory-based tests is limited.

“This concept provides noninvasive, rapid and accurate results anywhere in the world,” Mehta said. “A breakthrough in such mobile diagnostics could provide untold health benefits for vulnerable populations globally.”

“These types of potentially world-changing innovations are only possible when you foster strong multidisciplinary research and a culture of innovation, such as we do here at Cornell,” Erickson said.

Matt Hayes is associate director for communications for Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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