Healthcare technologies for use at home are becoming increasingly popular, and a team at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has invented a new addition in the form of a portable white blood cell counter, which can be used to monitor the progression of a number of diseases, including cancer.

Rather than asking patients to make frequent trips to the hospital to collect blood samples, the new device—which has yet to be named—allows patients to harvest a tiny drop of blood from the comfort of their couch, similar to a glucose testing meter. The device was developed by Professor Yu-Chong Tai and Dr. Wendian Shi at Caltech, along with the Jerusalem-based company LeukoDx, and has the potential to save patients and the healthcare system time and money.

"There are several diseases to which the device is very applicable. One example is to help cancer patients manage chemotherapy treatment, particularly a major side effect called neutropenia, and help to reduce their pain," Shi, lead author of the forthcoming paper in Lab on a Chip, tells Healthline. "Another example is to screen for bacterial infections and viral infections in a physician's office so the doctor can prescribe the proper medicines right away."  

So, the device is also ideal for use in doctor's office—a patient can get faster feedback and results, rather than checking in to a separate facility, having a vial of blood drawn, and then waiting a few days for the results. 

Implications for HIV/AIDS Monitoring

In addition to cancer, bacterial infections, and viral infections, HIV/AIDS is one area in which the device could drastically ease disease management.

"The device we developed is a platform technology," Shi said. "[It] can also be used to count one of the HIV/AIDS markers in blood, the number of CD4 and CD8 lymphocyte cells. Doctors use this marker to monitor the progress of HIV/AIDS therapy."

Professor Tai, who leads the Caltech lab in which the device was developed, says that "the white blood cell counts from our new system closely match the results from tests conducted in hospitals and other central clinical settings. This could make point-of-care testing possible for the first time."

Barriers to Entry

It's not clear precisely when the device will make its way to market. Often, such innovations take months or years to become available for sale due to bureaucratic procedural requirements.

Caltech is a notable, well-respected institution that has produced a range of cutting-edge medical technologies. The hope is that this portable white blood cell counting device will soon join the list of their products on the market for doctors and patients.

For patients struggling with chronic diseases, says Shi, "We would like to offer a device that will help them monitor their conditions at home. It would be nice to limit the number of trips they need to make to the hospital for testing."

The machine itself fits into a 12" x 9" x 5" suitcase and could eventually become a handheld device.

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