Hands-On Health

Imagine that chills, fever, and coughing wake you in the night. It’s impossible to schedule a doctor’s appointment that late, so you simply spit on a piece of paper to test yourself for the flu.

UT chemistry and biochemistry professor Andrew Ellington is working to make this reality. He’s developing an at-home testing kit that allows for self-diagnosis. Not only could it alter the way patients oversee their health, but it could also upend the future of health care.

Since the mid-1970s, women have used urine-based test strips that change colors if a certain hormone is detected to determine pregnancy. Ellington is working to make testing for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases just as simple.

“If you have a way to design a test for a sequence, which we do, and you can adapt that test to different sequences,” Ellington says, “then we can test for chlamydia, HIV, hepatitis C virus—or anything.”

Ellington and his team are developing a quick read test using a strip of paper embedded with bits of synthetic DNA. When mixed with a saliva or blood sample, the DNA will signal the presence of bacteria via a color change. With that information, patients could then decide whether or not to pursue treatment.

Should doctors feel threatened? UT scientists say no. “Obtaining more information before you go to the doctor enables an appropriate diagnosis,” says George Georgiou, professor of molecular genetics and microbiology. “This will make it easier for people to get proper treatment.”

Despite the benefits, the technology has not yet been widely adopted. But that will soon change, Ellington says. The researchers plan to have the tests distributed throughout the developing world, where risk of disease is greater.

They envision a process that will involve posting a picture of a visible ailment or injury to a clinic’s database, enabling patients to receive advice remotely. Even in the developing world, they say, that’s not a stretch.

“Most people have cell phones,” Ellington points out. “You can find them in some of the strangest places imaginable.”

If no doctor were available, patients could potentially use the database to share results with one another and create their own networks to discuss and monitor their care.

“I’m hoping this becomes part of a health care regimen that involves doctors, hospitals, and clinics,” Ellington says. “It will put more information and power in the hands of patients.”



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