Smartphones could one day detect and treat illness

smartphone in hand
CC BY 2.0 Tobyotter

Researchers have recently found numerous ways that smartphones can help with the detection and diagnosis of diseases like HIV and diabetes. The tiny computers can rapidly analyze results from bodily fluid samples or even a person's breath, but after that quick diagnosis medication needs to be taken to treat the disease.

Some day, smartphones may hold the cure instead. Scientists at the University of Maryland have found a way for phones or other devices to communicate directly with cells, which could be used to treat illness.

Cells typically communicate through molecular signals like hormones or nutrients, but the researchers found a way to communicate through electrons instead. There is a type of molecule in biological systems called a redox molecule that can transport electrons when they undergo chemical reactions like oxidation.

The researchers genetically engineered bacteria to respond to those molecules and then used a microelectronic device powered by a battery to trigger oxidation or reduction in the molecule which makes it either lose or gain an electron, respectively. The voltage applied then either switched the gene expression of the bacteria cell on or off.

In the tests, one group of bacteria would swim forward when switched on and stay in one place when switched off. In another the researchers were able to get the bacteria to behave collectively. One bacteria would be triggered by the molecule and then through normal biological signals cause nearby cells to behave the same. They were able to turn off the gene expression of the bacteria by reversing the polarity on the electrode of the battery.

These "switches" could one day lead to smartphones being able to detect an infection and then send electronic signals to trigger bacteria to make a treatment or there could be a microelectronic pill containing programmed bacteria that could be swallowed to cure disease.

Smartphones could one day detect and treat illness
Researchers have found a way to create communication between electronics and cells.

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