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Mobile phones could be the key to better STI diagnosis

Mobile phones could revolutionise the diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by using new technology to give instant results and recommend treatment options.

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Dr Claudia Estcourt
Dr Claudia Estcourt

A new £5.7 million project is developing self-test devices that can plug directly into mobile phones and computers, immediately identifying infections.

The Medical Research Council – and the UK Clinical Research Collaboration – has given a £4 million grant to a consortium of academic and industrial researchers to improve sexual health through the use of new technology. The consortium, which includes Queen Mary, University of London, St George's, UCL, Brunel University, University of Warwick, the Health Protection Agency and industrial partners, made up the remaining £1.7 million.

The project – called eSTI² (electronic self-testing instruments for STIs) – is being led by Dr Tariq Sadiq at St George's, University of London, and Queen Mary's contribution is being coordinated by Dr Claudia Estcourt from the Blizard Institute of Cell and Molecular Science at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.  She said: "By making STI testing with immediate results easier to access in the community, we aim to reduce infection rates and improve sexual health."

The consortium will use nanotechnology – advanced technology on a sub-microscopic scale – to create devices for testing multiple STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, similar to pregnancy test kits. These would be available in different settings, such as pharmacies and even vending machines, for users to add their samples and then plug into a computer or mobile phone. Software on the phone or computer will analyse the sample, make a diagnosis and recommend a course of action. Potentially, eSTI² systems could automatically make an appointment with the appropriate GP surgery or sexual health clinic, or send a message to the nearest pharmacy then use GPS to direct the user there, where their prescription will already have been prepared. It could also give options for informing a partner.

Dr Estcourt said: "Here at Barts and The London we’re leading all the crucial initial stages of the program which will work through the complex regulatory, ethical and clinical barriers to implementing such novel diagnostic and communication technologies through from development to patient care. This work will influence not just eSTI but should set up recommendations for mainstreaming future complex technological advances across the NHS.  We will be working in a highly multidisciplinary context which includes close collaboration with Professor Richard Ashcroft from Queen Mary's School of Law."

The proposal was put together as a direct response to the epidemic of STIs in the UK – which saw a rise of 36 per cent from 2000 to 2009 – and the reluctance for people to go to their doctor to find out if they are infected.

"The required technology is very close to becoming a reality," said Dr Sadiq. "But there are other issues we need to address before we can use devices in the community – confidentiality and data protection, for example, are supremely important. It will also be vital to have tests that can be easily adapted to detect newly identified STIs, as all the causes of sexually transmitted diseases have still not been discovered."

The consortium will ensure the devices are accurate in the development stage, investigate the most effective and safest ways to use eSTI² systems in the community, and seek to apply the technology to developing countries, where access to healthcare is more limited. Dr Sadiq added: "These systems have real potential to give individuals more control over their sexual health, reduce spread of infection, and radically change the way STIs are diagnosed and managed."

The project will bring together researchers with backgrounds in fields as diverse as telecommunications, microengineering, microbiology, and public health, as well as NHS technology adoption teams.

Adapted from materials provided by St George's, University of London.

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