#2: The Tumor Sniff-Tester
While we’re on the topic of cancer (not that you asked, but here we are), colon cancer also worries me. Five years between colonoscopies? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not eager. But if catching colon cancer early is worth subjecting people to all that, it seems to me it ought to be checked more than bi-decadely.
As it happens, there will soon be a gadget in the works for that, too. Not a home colonoscopy kit, thankfully. The device I have my eye on is basically a cancer Breathalyzer. “Cancer cells have distinctive byproducts that healthy cells don’t,” explains Paul Rhodes, a
neuroscientist and entrepreneur who has founded a company called Metabolomx to develop and market cancer sniff tests. Rhodes’s plan of attack: “These small molecules diffuse into the blood and the breath, and the pattern can be recognized.”
Rhodes’s inspiration came from cancer-sniffing dogs, which have been shown in studies to be 95 percent accurate in distinguishing the breath of a colon cancer patient from that of a healthy subject. Dogs can do that because their noses contain 900 different types of olfactory receptors, chemical detectors in cells that respond to many different kinds of odor molecules in particular ways.
My first thought was “Great, I’ll just train my dog, Welby, to sniff for colon cancer.” But I quickly realized that unless any tumor I develop happens to smell exactly like a Liv-A-Snap, I can’t count on my mutt.
I have higher hopes for the Metabolomx test, which has 130 different molecular sensors printed on a postage-stamp-size piece of plastic. Breathe on it and the sensors change color when activated; the pattern of colors can then be read by a computer for thumbs up or down. Rhodes claims that in his research, the kit has had 85 percent accuracy in identifying patients with lung cancer.
So far the Metabolomx test has been designed only to detect lung cancer, but colon and breast cancer shouldn’t be far behind, Rhodes says. He adds that other diseases should be detectable on breath as well, including diabetes and some types of kidney disease. Impoverished hypochondriacs, rejoice: When the test hits the market—in a couple of years, Rhodes hopes—it should cost just about $100 a pop.
#3: The Smartphone Physician
And what about this incredible tool I have right here in my pants, one I share with about half the people on the planet? Yes, my cell phone. As if it weren’t enough that this device enables me to text, video chat, poke, tweet, and Instagram everyone I’m usually trying to avoid, it also has the makings of a state-of-the-art medical-imaging device.
Credit UCLA bioengineer Aydogan Ozcan, who has come up with a way to convert a cell phone camera into a blood-cell imager that can potentially eliminate the need to send blood to a lab. His main trick: He replaces the physical phone-camera lens with a software lens—a set of programs that can take the chaotic-looking pattern of light and shadows that shine on the phone’s unlensed image sensor and re-create an image out of it.
Ozcan begins by mounting a glass slide containing a blood sample on the phone, right in front of the camera sensor, so that light shines through the blood. The resulting shadow pattern contains a wealth of information about whatever is in the sample. It could theoretically screen for diseases like malaria and sickle-cell anemia and could also do a straightforward blood count. “That pattern is the fingerprint of the cell’s structure,” Ozcan says. “Our algorithms can process the pattern and reconstruct the image in fine detail.” It helps, he notes, that today’s smartphones have graphics-processing units more powerful than a room-filling supercomputer of 20 years ago.
As with the other self-diagnosis tools, home use of Ozcan’s cell phone blood imager is a ways off, but it is already being looked at for pilot programs in remote locations where doctors and lab equipment are in short supply. The images it captures can be sent off as text-message attachments to a lab technician. And someday, the phone may have the smarts to do the diagnosis on its own. “A cell phone embodies an amazing set of technologies,” Ozcan says. “Scientists are just realizing what a cost-effective platform it is for diagnosis.”
I, for one, am perfectly ready to hand over all responsibility for monitoring my health to my cell phone. I’d set it up to run through a complete battery of tests every hour and tweet my doctor the results. I’m sure she’d want to be kept posted. And think of how much material we’ll get to go over together during my annual visit. I can’t wait to see the look on her face.