A new £5.7 million project being led by St George’s, University of London is developing self-test devices that can plug directly into mobile phones and computers, immediately identifying infections. The project is called eSTI (electronic self testing instruments for STIs), and is being led by Dr Tariq Sadiq, senior lecturer and consultant physician in sexual health and HIV at St George’s, University of London. Most of the funding is coming from The Medical Research Council – and the UK Clinical Research Collaboration.

The UK has seen a 36 per cent rise in STIs from 2000 to 2009 – often blamed on the reluctance of the population to get diagnosed and the stigma of going to public health clinics – prompting the support of this project.

Researchers will use nanotechnology 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.

It appears the technology will be aimed at phones that have the capability to connect to external devices and run mobile apps – smart phones such as the iPhone, Android devices, Blackberry, among others.

Differing accounts of Promise

Dr. Sadiq has said the required technology is very close to becoming reality – cognizant of other issues needing to be addressed as well, such as confidentiality and data protection.  The British government’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) is on board with the project, and they see huge potential in using the technology to reduce sexually transmitted infections among the young population.  The HPA is even willing to help coordinate large scale evaluations of the technology within networks of STI clinics.

However, Professor Basil Donovan, head of the sexual health program at the University of New South Wales’ National Centre in HIV Epidemiology & Clinical Research, has told the Sydney Morning Herald that he maintains a “healthy skepticism” about the project.

“If they say that’s what they’re aspiring to that would be terrific, but unfortunately there’s no such test yet – at this stage it’s just fantasy,” Professor Donovan said in a phone interview. “There was a paper published just a couple of weeks ago where they looked at all of the commercially available home testing kits for chlamydia and they were just a joke – if someone had chlamydia there was only a 10 per cent chance that the test would show it up.”

But Professor Donovan said he believed it was a “great idea”, concurring with Dr Sadiq that a big problem with current STD testing was that “it’s too embarrassing and too expensive to test everyone all the time”.

“I think in our lifetime it will happen and at the moment there are rapid home tests available for some conditions like HIV that are actually quite good,” he said.

Sources: St George University of London, Sydney Morning Herald