The Future of Disease Screening Technologies

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A simple phone call could lead to a Parkinson's diagnosis thanks to new technologies being used for disease screening.

We are evolving and so are the technologies that we use. iPhone is in its 5th version and getting more and more user efficient with every new model. Research works the same way. In the early 1900’s research was focused on developing clinical tests to identify diseases in patients. Nowadays research is equally focused on developing at-home, do-it-yourself (DIY) versions of these disease-screening technologies, to make it more manageable, user-friendly and accessible to patients with no clinical access.

For example certain cancer types can be detected by the presence of exosomes, which are tiny particles secreted by all cells in the body including cancer cells. If an at-home test kit is developed based on exosome identification in a donor sample then people won’t need to go to the hospital to get a preliminary diagnosis. Imagine using such tests to screen for diseases, based on symptoms, in developing countries with limited health care capabilities. It can make screening for diseases geographically accessible and available. Screening for diseases is one positive step towards a cure. Such tests are highly reliable but can at best serve as a preliminary screening for diseases; further clinical tests need to be done in cases that test positive.

The Parkinson’s Voice Initiative, a project being developed by mathematician Max Little with the goal of screening for and monitoring Parkinson’s disease, can provide a reliable diagnosis of the disease within three minutes through a simple phone call. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. Currently the screening for this disease involves a neurological exam with imaging screening tools like positron emission tomography (PET) or genetic testing. The PET scan usually takes about an hour to complete and another 48 hours for the results. So in all, the waiting period for a patient is around 2,940 minutes.

The test being developed is simple. Any one can call the help center. Then, through simple voice recordings, a result that is 99 percent accurate can be provided within 30 seconds. Specialized algorithms are used to detect the subtle changes in a voice, like tremors that are common in patients with Parkinson’s. Amazing, right!!!  This technology is currently in the research phase but if and when such a technology becomes available for public use, imagine the impact and outreach in screening for Parkinson’s disease! Check out this video of Max Little talking about his vision for the project. This is just one of the several examples of initiatives that are currently being researched to make health care alternatives more accessible to a wider range of population.

Another example is OraQuick, a FDA approved test for preliminary at-home screening of HIV. In clinics, the most common way for HIV testing is either antigen tests or a PCR test. These tests look for HIV antibodies in the blood/oral fluid/urine sample of the donor. If these tests are positive, then the patient is required to get a secondary Western blot test to confirm the result. OraQuick makes the preliminary testing simple and user-friendly by making the test accessible to patients at home. The test works on the same principle, in that it checks for the presence of HIV antibodies in the oral fluid sample of the donor.

Increasing accessibility to health care solutions can incentivize people to be more proactive about testing thereby lowering the transmission of communicable diseases. More and more researchers are focused on developing screening technologies that can make screening diseases simpler. Instead of a complicated and lengthy hospital visit if the same result can be obtained using a home-test kit, it is always more desirable. 

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