Even in this era of modern technology, it seems unbelievable that a “selfie” of sorts could be used to make a medical diagnosis. But a Purdue University researcher believes his team is on the cusp of creating a mobile app that can detect anemia with just the click of a cell phone camera. While the condition is prevalent in developing countries, anemia is also a common struggle for cancer patients. Patients at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center will soon be testing a new anemia detection method developed by Purdue Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Dr. Young Kim. It could, ultimately, allow patients to trade painful needle pokes for a pain-free selfie.

Anemia is characterized by a low level of red blood cells, or hemoglobin. It can be triggered by a decrease in the production of hemoglobin, or an increase in the loss or destruction of red blood cells. Anemia can be caused by cancer or common treatments for the disease, such as chemo or radiation. The standard method to detect the condition is a blood test to measure the level of hemoglobin.

“[A blood draw] is not really ideal. The result isn’t immediately available, but a patient needs to know; if they’re not in good shape, they can’t go through scheduled [cancer] therapy,” says Kim.  “And if you have chronic anemia, you don’t want to have a series of blood tests, because it can be hard to find vessels for these patients.”

Kim and his team have developed a method that uses a cell phone camera to detect anemia. The patient pulls down his or her lower eyelid to expose the color of the tiny blood vessels underneath and snaps an “eyelid selfie.” Kim’s method, called sHEA (smartphone-based bloodless spectrometerless HEmoglobin Analyzer), relies on virtual hyperspectral images (VHI) to analyze the photo.   

“With a hyperspectral imaging system, you can quantify hemoglobin content very accurately, but it’s really big and bulky,” says Kim. “VHI virtually converts any camera to a hyperspectral imaging system.”

Every photo is based on RGB (red, green, blue) data. The team has created an algorithm that translates RGB data into VHI.

“[VHI] provides more detailed color information, so we can pull out the exact hemoglobin content in the blood,” says Kim.

Supported by a $75,000 grant from the Indiana CTSI (Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute), patients undergoing treatment at the IU Simon Cancer Center will soon be testing sHEA; participants will use both a conventional blood test and Kim’s cell phone method to determine hemoglobin content. The two sets of results will be compared to evaluate the accuracy of Kim’s method.

An even larger study will also soon launch in Kenya through Indiana University’s East Africa-based AMPATH program.

“In developing countries, anemia is a major health problem. In Kenya, it’s known that a large portion of the general population is anemic; some statistics show half of pregnant women and preschool children are anemic, so it’s very prevalent,” says Kim. “A blood test in Kenya is quite expensive, so we want to provide a cost-effective, but very accurate and reliable test.”

Supported by a $385,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the study in Kenya aims to have about 600 patients undergoing routine bloodwork compare their hemoglobin results to the results obtained by Kim’s method.

“Although the technology is the same, the need is very different; in the U.S., we want to make it more convenient and more like a home health care monitoring app,” says Kim. “But in resource-limited settings like Kenya, it’s a very important medical technology.”

Kim expects the studies to validate the technology and expose any areas that need improvement. He’s hopeful the results could lead to the creation of a mobile app within a year—providing a snapshot of a patient’s blood content through a simple selfie. 

Kim says it’s important to determine if a cancer patient is anemic, because it can indicate the body’s readiness for cancer treatments.

Kim says it’s rewarding to work on a technology that could help patients both in the U.S. and globally.

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