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Researchers at the University of Houston in the US are developing a disease diagnostic system to use smartphones for diagnosing diseases in real-time, offering results that could be read using a mobile device with $20 lens attachment.

The new system is being developed by a team led by two Houston-based engineering professors Jiming Bao and Richard Willson.

It involves a simple glass slide and a thin film of gold with thousands of holes poked in it.

The glass slide is covered by a film of gold with ordered rows and columns of transparent holes where light can pass through.

The device diagnoses an illness by blocking the light with a disease-antibody bond, as well as a few additional ingredients.

If a biological sample contains a bacteria or virus it will bond with the antibody in the hole. This begins a process that darkens the hole.

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This system would allow a smartphone’s camera, flash and attachable lens to analyse the slide by detecting whether the holes are blocked or are allowing light to pass through.

The system promises readouts that are affordable and easy-to-interpret.

"With this, you can add $20 to a phone you already have and you’re done."

Willson said some of the more advanced diagnostic systems need $200,000 worth of instrumentation to read the results.

"With this, you can add $20 to a phone you already have and you’re done," Willson said.

There are still major technical hurdles to clear before the system can be rolled out, Willson noted.

This new system could be an effective tool for health care providers, if a way could be found to drive bacteria and viruses in the sample down to the slide’s surface to ensure the most accurate results.

It could also be used to screen large groups of people for widespread and serious health issues in economically disadvantaged areas.

The National Institutes of Health and The Welch Foundation funded the development and was featured in February in ACS Photonics.

Image: Smartphones will soon be able to diagnose diseases in real-time. Photo: courtesy of