No Bleeding Required: Anemia Detection Via Smartphone

Biomedical engineers have developed a smartphone app with the aim of non-invasive detection of anemia. Instead of a blood test, the app uses photos of someone’s fingernails taken on a smartphone to determine whether the level of hemoglobin in their blood seems low.

The researchers published their results in Nature Communications.

“All other ‘point-of-care’ anemia detection tools require external equipment, and represent trade-offs between invasiveness, cost, and accuracy,” said principal investigator Wilbur Lam. “This is a standalone app that can look at hemoglobin levels  without the need to draw blood.”

The app should be used for screening, not clinical diagnosis.

Lam is a clinical hematologist-bioengineer at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and a faculty member in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech.

The study’s first author was Rob Mannino, who was motivated to conduct the research by his own experience living with beta-thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder caused by a mutation in the beta-globin gene. Mannino was a graduate research assistant in biomedical engineering who has since graduated.

Graduate student Rob Mannino (right), pictured with Wilbur Lam (left), looks at his own fingernails using the new anemia test app. Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher MooreGraduate student Rob Mannino (right), pictured with Wilbur Lam (left), looks at his own fingernails using the new anemia test app. Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

Graduate student Rob Mannino (right), pictured with Wilbur Lam (left), looks at his own fingernails using the new anemia test app. Credit: Georgia Tech / Christopher Moore

“Treatment for my disease requires monthly blood transfusions,” Mannino says. “My doctors would test my hemoglobin levels more if they could, but it’s a hassle for me to get to the hospital in between transfusions to receive this blood test. Instead, my doctors currently have to just estimate when I’m going to need a transfusion, based on my hemoglobin level trends.”

“This whole project couldn’t have been done by anyone but Rob,” Lam says. “He took pictures of himself before and after transfusions as his hemoglobin levels were changing, which enabled him to constantly refine and tweak his technology on himself in a very efficient manner. So essentially, he was his own perfect initial test subject with each iteration of the app.”

The app could facilitate self-management by patients with chronic anemia, allowing them to monitor their disease and to identify the times when they need to adjust their therapies or receive transfusions, the researchers said. That may reduce side effects or complications of having transfusions too early or too late.

An illustration of how the anemia test smartphone app works. Credit: Lam / Emory / Georgia TechAn illustration of how the anemia test smartphone app works. Credit: Lam / Emory / Georgia Tech

An illustration of how the anemia test smartphone app works. Credit: Lam / Emory / Georgia Tech

The technology could be used by anyone at any time and could be especially appropriate for pregnant women, women with abnormal menstrual bleeding, or runners/athletes. Its simplicity means it could be useful in developing countries. Clinical diagnostic tools have strict accuracy requirements, but Mannino and Lam think that with additional research, they can eventually achieve the accuracy needed to replace blood-based anemia testing for clinical diagnosis.

Anemia is a blood condition that affects two billion people worldwide and can lead to fatigue, paleness and cardiac distress if left untreated. The current gold standard for anemia diagnosis is known as a complete blood count (CBC).

The researchers studied fingernail photos and correlated the color of the fingernail beds with hemoglobin levels measured by CBC in 337 people: some healthy, and others with a variety of anemia diagnoses. The algorithm for converting fingernail color to blood hemoglobin level was developed with 237 of these subjects and then tested on 100.

The researchers were able to show that a single smartphone image, without personalized calibration, can measure hemoglobin level with an accuracy of 2.4 grams/deciliter with a sensitivity of up to 97 percent. Personalized calibration, tested on four patients over the course of several weeks, can improve the accuracy to 0.92 grams/deciliter, a degree of accuracy on par with point-of-care blood-based hemoglobin tests. Normal values are 13.5-17.5 grams/deciliter for males and 12.0-15.5 grams/deciliter for females.

In the app, the use of fingernail beds, which do not contain melanin, means the test can be valid for people with a variety of skin tones. The accuracy is consistent for dark or light skin tones, Mannino says. The app uses image metadata to correct for background brightness and can be adapted to phones from multiple manufacturers.

Mannino and Lam say they are working with a variety of doctors at Children’s and Emory – geriatric, internal medicine, neonatologists, transfusion medicine, global health – to obtain additional data and better calibrate their system.

“This is just a snapshot of the accuracy right now,” Lam says. “The algorithm gets smarter with every patient enrolled.”

Source: Georgia Tech


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