When I was in junior high, I would rush home every day after school to tune in to the afternoon reruns of Star Trek.
Fascinated by the technology possessed by the crew of the Enterprise, I often imagined what it would be like if I had their high-tech devices.
I was particularly intrigued by the tricorder Spock used to collect readings when the team beamed down to a planet’s surface. As a professional biochemist, I really came to appreciate the powerful technology Spock had at his fingertips. Gaining even cursory insight into a biochemical sample can take weeks of hard work in the lab. But all that Spock had to do was point the tricorder in the direction of the alien life-form to gain essential information. Of course, Spock didn’t get to have all the fun.
Dr. McCoy had a tricorder too. His instrument could be used to diagnose sick and injured crew members by simply passing a wand over the patients. Wouldn’t it be great if physicians could diagnosis our ailments so quickly and easily? No more trips to the doctor’s office. No more late-night excursions to the emergency room.
Well, science fiction is about to become science fact, thanks to work by engineers from the University of Washington (UW). These researchers developed a smartphone app that can measure hemoglobin concentration in a patient’s blood after the patient presses his/her finger against the phone’s camera.1
This new technology represents an important advance in medical screening, allowing physicians to quickly test for anemia. This blood disorder is rampant in the developing world, caused by malnutrition and parasite infections.
Measuring the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity is key for diagnosing anemia. Detecting and monitoring anemia can be difficult in a third-world context because the most reliable method for determining the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood involves drawing blood and counting red blood cells. This procedure (1) exposes medical workers to the patient’s blood; (2) runs the risk of being unsanitary, introducing the risk of infection; and (3) requires access to a laboratory to count the red blood cells.
Noninvasive methods exist, but they require expensive medical instruments.
These limitations motivated the UW team to develop the smartphone app to measure hemoglobin content in blood. This technology is relatively inexpensive, mobile, and can yield rapid results—ideal for screening for anemia in the field.
The UW team dubbed their app HemaApp. The app makes use of an algorithm that converts video images of the patient’s finger into a series of oscillating curves corresponding to different wavelengths of light. The form of these curves is influenced by the absorption of light by hemoglobin in the blood (which causes blood’s red color). The more hemoglobin, the greater the blood’s light absorption at certain wavelengths of light.
In a pilot study (involving men and women, patients of all ages, and several ethnicities), the researchers showed that HemaApp performed as well as the leading noninvasive blood monitoring technologies, paving the way to use this technology in the field.
These researchers think that their accomplishments are the first step toward broader usage of smartphones for medical screening. It is conceivable that the technology can be adapted to screen for sickle cell anemia, which is caused by mutations to the gene encoding hemoglobin. These mutations lead to hemoglobin with a distorted structure, which alters its light absorption spectrum.
This technology will also be a benefit to people living in the first world. Patients with anemia can monitor the hemoglobin level of their blood at home, providing them with a tool to more effectively manage their health issues. Because the hemoglobin measurements are made with a smartphone, the data can be easily sent to the patient’s physician.
HemaApp isn’t quite as impressive as a medical tricorder, but it sure is a big step in that direction.
Yet, as promising as the biomedical implications are for this advance, the bioethical implications are even more exciting.
Biomedical Technology, Bioethics, and Social Justice
Many Christians are vigilant about the ethical implications associated with biomedical advances, raising concerns when technologies undermine the sanctity of human life.
Yet, a neglected area of bioethics relates to the accessibility of medical care and emerging biomedical technologies. Many diagnostic tools and medical procedures require highly specialized equipment and highly trained personnel. These requirements sometimes render even the most basic medical care so costly that only a relatively small percentage of the world’s population has access to lifesaving biomedical technologies.
In my view, the inequitable distribution of medical care should be considered as much a pro-life issue as the destruction of human embryos associated with many emerging biotechnologies or euthanasia. Like all Christians, I hold the view that all human life has immeasurable value—inherent worth and dignity—because all human beings are made in God’s image. If so, then it is reasonable to think that all human beings have fundamental human rights. And, in my view, that includes equal access to basic medical care. And ideally, beyond that, all human beings should be able to equally benefit from biomedical advances.
The use of smartphones as a medical screening tool moves us one step closer to realizing this ideal. HemaApp stands as a powerful new biomedical technology, but it is affordable and portable. These features make it possible for the wealthiest and poorest people on the planet to benefit from this advance. In fact, this technology could be transformative for some of the poorest parts of the world by helping medical workers to quickly identify and treat those people suffering from anemia.
The UW researchers bring us one step closer to the dream of a young teenager who loved to watch Star Trek. They are also making it possible to envision how, as human beings, we can boldly go where no one has gone before—to a world where biotechnology provides treatments and therapies for many horrible diseases and injuries and also makes basic medical care accessible to the world’s poor.
- “Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Interview with Dr. Fazale (‘Fuz’) Rana” (article)
- “Q&A: Is a New in vitro Fertilization Method Ethical?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “GNINOLC: We Have It All Backwards” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Advance Holds Potential to Resolve Cloning’s Ethical Challenges” by Fazale Rana (article)
- Edward Jay Wang et al., “HemaApp: Noninvasive Blood Screening of Hemoglobin Using Smartphone Cameras,” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (September 2016): 593–604, doi:10.1145/2971648.2971653.