The necessity of getting tested for STDs is often avoided as much from embarrassment as from fear of the outcome. Like buying condoms at the store, it’s a situation where your private life is suddenly exposed, and even though it’s not something to be ashamed of, it’s something you’d rather keep to yourself. People shy from going to the clinic or hospital, even when it’s a serious matter for themselves or others, because of this natural tendency to eschew public scrutiny.
A project at St. George’s University in London aims to prevent this problem by making STD testing as private as pregnancy testing. They’re doing so by developing a mobile phone-compatible chip that would be capable of returning results within 15 minutes.
At the moment, it’s still mostly on paper; the eSTI2 project, headed by Dr Tariq Sadiq, just last week received a £4 million grant from the UK’s Medical Research Council and £1.7 million from other sources. That means it’s more or less just a twinkle in the doctor’s eye today, though as he notes, it is recent advances in miniaturization that have made the idea possible.
The chip, which is currently about the size of a thumbdrive, would require a sample from the user — saliva, urine, or blood — and would then pass the raw data to the phone for processing. Normally, the sample would have to be taken at a clinic, sent to a lab, and analyzed there — a process that can take days depending on the load the lab is under and other variables. Sadiq aims at getting results within a quarter of an hour or less.
The challenge is to make the device both accurate and affordable. The prototypes only cost about $30, which is peanuts in medical money, but they hope to drive the cost below $5, allowing for mass public availability and deployment in needy areas.
This last application could be extremely important; STIs are rife in third-world countries and contribute heavily to mortality rates. Clinics are overburdened and labs few and in great demand; a cheap mobile solution like this could vastly improve health conditions, though it can do nothing about unhealthy and dangerous attitudes towards sex and infection.
Mobile health is a growing market in first-world countries as well. Portable machines for monitoring blood sugar, medication levels, and so on are changing the hospital-centric view of health care and personal medical tech is likely to explode over the next decade. In the case of this device, it might accompany your results with directions to the nearest clinic or pharmacy. Yes, we should probably iron out the privacy issues before then.
For now the eSTI2 project (electronic self-testing instruments for sexually transmitted infections, in case you were wondering) must work on getting the device working. Clinical testing and a lengthy approval process mean that we’re unlikely to see a iTest app before 7 to 10 years.
Don’t wait until then to get tested, though.