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Current diagnostic tests for COVID-19 can be expensive and difficult to find.
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  • Researchers say they have developed a saliva-based smartphone app that can diagnose COVID-19 in 25 minutes.
  • The system, called SmaRT-LAMP, uses a hotplate inside a heat box to analyze a saliva sample.
  • The app is free online and the test kit is a one-time-purchase that can be reused.
  • Experts say smartphones have the potential to make diagnosing diseases less expensive and more accessible worldwide.

As if cell phones don’t do enough already, they may now be able to tell people whether they have COVID-19 or influenza.

Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) have developed a cell phone app they say, along with a lab kit, will be able to detect COVID-19 variants and flu viruses rapidly and accurately.

A study on the new online program, which is called SmaRT-LAMP, was published January 28 in JAMA Network Open.

Its developers say the system ranks among the most rapid, sensitive, affordable, and scalable tests in existence.

They add it can be adapted for other pathogens with pandemic potential, including the flu.

“As new COVID variants emerge globally, testing and detection remain essential to pandemic control efforts,” said Michael Mahan, PhD, the lead study author as well as a researcher and professor at UCSB, in a statement. “Nearly half the world’s population has a smartphone, and we believe that this holds exciting potential to provide fair and equal access to precision diagnostic medicine.”

The app was developed for the Android operating system and can be downloaded and installed from the Google Play store.

Upon opening the app, the user is presented with an option for a step-by-step tutorial prior to running test samples.

The app uses a smartphone’s camera to measure a chemical reaction in a small sample of person’s saliva, then provides a diagnosis in 25 minutes.

The developers also say the lab kit can be produced for less than $100, and the screening tests can be run for less than $7 each.

The app itself doesn’t cost anything.

“We have no financial interests. The app and technology are open-source and freely available to all. The test kit is reusable,” Mahan told Healthline.

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A diagram of how the smaRT-LAMP process works. Courtesy of Smartphone, M.D.

The UCSB professor explained how the process works.

“LEDs are affixed to the inside top of a cardboard box that covers a heat block on a hotplate.” Mahan said. “The SmaRT-LAMP reaction mix is loaded onto a heat block, which initiates amplification… it heats the samples/reaction mixture to an optimum temperature for DNA amplification.”

“The app displays the results as ‘Pathogen Detected’ red circle, or ‘No Pathogen Found’ green circle,” he said.

Developers say the test occurs at a constant temperature in a home-based environment, which helps with accuracy.

“The key finding was solving the LAMP ‘primer-dimer’ problem — false positives due to high sensitivity — which scientists have struggled with for more than 20 years,” said Douglas Matthew Heithoff, PhD, a UCSB researcher, in a statement. “It took more than 500 attempts to solve it for COVID-19, after which flu viruses were detected on the very first try.”

Not only could the SmaRT-LAMP be a leap forward in COVID-19 testing, it shows the potential of cell phones in helping people stay healthy, said Daria Maltseva, product manager at United Kingdom-based tech developer and marketing company KeyUA.

“The prevalence, power, and portability of smartphones make them valuable tools for pathogen monitoring and citizen science,” Maltseva told Healthline. “The billions of smartphones in use worldwide offer unprecedented opportunities for disease tracking, diagnostics, and citizen science.”

Maltseva said there are other apps being developed that enable phones to observe COVID-19 symptoms, count disease-carrying mosquitoes, and detect microscopic pathogens.

“They may even help the globe to organize for the following pandemic,” she said. “These tools will be incredibly cheap to deploy, and they get real-time insights directly from people on the bottom. That kind of knowledge can outpace what traditional surveillance provides.”

Developers also say the SmaRT-LAMP could level the playing field when it comes to seeing where and how fast the virus is spreading. It can also help reduce the chances of future outbreaks.

“We hope technologies like this offer new ways of bringing state-of-the-art diagnostics to underserved and vulnerable populations,” said David Low, PhD, a UCBS professor and a study co-author, in a statement.