Mobile phones could revolutionise the diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by using new technology to give instant results and recommend treatment options. 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 Medical Research Council – and the UK Clinical Research Collaboration – has given a £4 million grant to a consortium of academic and industrial researchers to improve sexual health through the use of new technology. The consortium, which includes St George’s,University College London, Brunel University, Warwick University, Queen Mary, University of London, the Health Protection Agency, and industrial partners, made up the remaining £1.7 million. The project – called eSTI² (electronic self-testing instruments for STIs) – is being led by Dr Tariq Sadiq, senior lecturer and consultant physician in sexual health and HIV at St George’s, University of London, who said: “By making diagnosis easier to access in the community, with immediate results, we aim to reduce infection rates and improve sexual health.”

The consortium will use nanotechnology – advanced technology on a sub-microscopic scale – 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. Software on the phone or computer will analyse the sample, make a diagnosis and recommend a course of action. Dr Sadiq said that, potentially, eSTI2 systems could automatically make an appointment with the appropriate GP surgery or sexual health clinic, or send a message to the nearest pharmacy then use GPS to direct the user there, where their prescription will already have been prepared. It could also give options for informing a partner.

Dr Sadiq said: “Mobile phones have changed the way we live and communicate, and our team of experts firmly believe that they open up a unique avenue for new ways to diagnose and control STIs. Currently, if you want to know if you have an infection, your sample is usually sent to a laboratory and the results come back in a few days. Imagine how much more likely you would be to get tested if you could test yourself away from a clinic and have an on-the-spot, accurate result, but still let a doctor or pharmacist know within minutes that you may need treatment. This kind of system could also speed up the process of communicating infection trends in the population to public health doctors, allowing for quicker responses to outbreaks of an STI.”

The proposal was put together as a direct response to the epidemic of STIs in the UK – which saw a rise of 36 per cent from 2000 to 2009 – and the reluctance for people to go to their doctor to find out if they are infected. The project will bring together researchers with backgrounds in fields as diverse as telecommunications, microengineering, microbiology, and public health, as well as NHS technology adoption teams. 

“The required technology is very close to becoming a reality,” said Dr Sadiq. “But there are other issues we need to address before we can use devices in the community – confidentiality and data protection, for example, are supremely important. It will also be vital to have tests that can be easily adapted to detect newly identified STIs, as all the causes of sexually transmitted diseases have still not been discovered.”

The consortium will ensure the devices are accurate in the development stage, investigate the most effective and safest ways to use eSTI2 systems in the community, and seek to apply the technology to developing countries, where access to healthcare is more limited. Dr Sadiq added: “These systems have real potential to give individuals more control over their sexual health, reduce spread of infection, and radically change the way STIs are diagnosed and managed.”