Smartphone sniffer

17 Feb 2015

There are days in Hong Kong when it's hard to think of smartphones as something more than toys. MTR carriages house solitary commuters absorbed in crushing brightly colored candy-shaped icons. Others flip through electronic photo albums with multiple images of someone else's lunch.

Yet today's smartphones contain raw computing power that would stagger an electronic engineer from an earlier era. And of course, many use the computing and communicative abilities in their handhelds to read news, send/receive essential emails or other communication, edit photos or videos or other tasks formerly consigned to laptops or desktops.

But smartphones are capable of more, and here's a noteworthy example.

Sniffer add-on
Reports indicate that some dogs can detect various types of cancer in humans by using their sense of smell. According to WebMD: "Doctors have previously reported cases in which dogs have alerted their owners to undiagnosed skin, breast, and lung cancers by repeatedly pawing or nosing an affected body part. Some dogs have even been trained to smell low blood sugar levels in people who have diabetes."

Early detection is key to cancer treatment. But conventional tests require appointments, fees, and sometimes, invasive procedures. Imagine a smartphone add-on that allows owners to do simple breath-tests as an ad hoc screening process. It might not be 100% accurate, but if used as an early-warning detector, users get an indication of when they should seek more advanced medical testing.

According to Sensors Online, a research team at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is doing exactly that. "Headed by Professor Hossam Haick, the consortium is developing a device that teams with a smartphone", says the publication. "Once combined, the pair will be able analyze a speaker’s breath and detect existing or impending diseases".

The device is known as the SNIFFPHONE (in all-caps, which isn't the ideal way to name a device, but there it is) and "employs both micro- and nano-sensors that read exhaled breath and transfer information about breath content via the mobile phone to an information-processing system for interpretation. Analysis of breath data then enables a diagnosis".

Haick says it "will be tinier and cheaper than currently available disease detection solutions, consume little power, and most importantly, it will enable immediate and early diagnosis that is both accurate and non-invasive. Early diagnosis can save lives, particularly in life-threatening diseases such as cancer".

The project is funded by a grant from the European Commission and more information from the American Technion Society is available here.

Tech breakthrough?
The device isn't available yet, so no information on costs and efficacy are available. But this trend is more exciting that some new selfie-widget or Angry Birds reboot. Here's something that turns a smartphone into something more than a computer with an RF transmitter/receiver in a pink Kitty case. It's an early-warning system for disease that harnesses those capabilities.

Haick and his team deserve plaudits for developing this device. It will be interesting to see what other researchers do with the overall concept. Stay tuned.

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