Two smartphone peripherals to check food before you dig in

By: Jonah Comstock | Dec 18, 2012        

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iTube food allergen detectorFollowers of mHealth should have learned by now not to be surprised by what health function your smartphone will serve next. Still and all, two new technologies are presenting a somewhat novel use case: scanning your food before you eat it. A recent proof-of-concept from UCLA turns your smartphone into a mobile lab that can test your food for a number of allergens, while a new commercial product from Russian startup Lapka tests for nitrates in produce, a hallmark of whether produce is truly organic.

UCLA’s allergen-sensing iTube

Researchers at UCLA have developed a device that uses the iPhone camera to analyze food samples, searching them for food allergens. In about 20 minutes, the device can return a result about whether certain food allergens are in a sample, and how much of the allergen exists. It can currently identify peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts, and the app displays the concentration in parts per million.

About 4 to 6 percent of all US children under 18 have food allergies, according to the CDC, but that number appears to be rising. From 1997 to 2007 the number of children with food allergies went up 18 percent. People with food allergies get accustomed to reading ingredient lists and avoiding foods they can’t eat. For those with severe allergies, however, even cross contamination, like cooking something in the same pan that was used to cook peanuts, can be deadly.

The team calls the device the iTube, and recently tested it on commercially-available cookies, publishing their results in the peer-reviewed journal Lab on a Chip. The iTube is a platform for conducting existing chemical tests for allergens called a colorametric assay, so its accuracy is already well-established.

At the moment, the test procedure is a little bit complicated for a commercial application. The food has to be ground up, mixed with hot water and extraction solvent, and then mixed with other liquids right before testing. The process takes about 20 minutes. But the device is still smaller and faster than anything on the market currently, according to lead researcher Aydogan Ozcan. Ozcan is the co-founder of Holomic, formerly known as Microskia, a company that worked on a low-cost microscope that leverages a smartphone.

“It’s quick,” he said. “You grind it for a couple of minutes, maybe using your spoon as a mechanical instrument. And then you just wait for the tube to react to possible allergens in the food.”

Lapka’s organicity sensor

Lapka organicity sensorThe other food-tester in the news is Lapka’s organicity sensor, part of a suite of attractively designed sensor peripherals for the iPhone. Of the five sensors, only one is related to food – the others are about the immediate environment. They measure radiation, temperature and humidity, and electromagnetic fields. The corresponding app displays numerical values, rates each category as acceptable or unacceptable, and displays the readings in an abstract way: animated particles move slowly over cool-colored backgrounds when readings are positive, quickly over warmer colors when they’re negative.

The various environmental factors Lapka measures are causes of concern for some, although in terms of scientific evidence, there’s not a broad consensus, for instance, on whether organic food is more healthy than non-organic food, or whether the electromagnetic fields produced by cellphones and microwaves are harmful. CEO Vadik Marmeladov told MobiHealthNews that the company doesn’t take sides on those debates. They just provide sensors and ratings based on government-supplied guidelines for acceptable exposures.

The organicity sensor is a stainless steel probe the user sticks into a piece of fruit or a vegetable. The device, plugged into the iPhone via the headphone jack, reads electrical conductivity, which, according to Lapka’s website “correlates to the relative concentration of nitrate ions left behind from nitrogen-based fertilizers.” It returns a reading of nitrate parts per million. The app is programmed with presets for common fruits and vegetables. Marmeladov says that though organicity sensors are novel in the US, they’re fairly common in China, India, and Russia already.

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Asthma apps proliferate for the right reasons

By: Neil Versel | Dec 18, 2012        

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Neil_Versel_LargeAsthmapolis. Asthma Journal. AsthmaMD. GlaxoSmithKline’s MyAsthma. AsthmaSense and AirSonea, both from iSonea. T-Haler. CitiSense. WeatherMD. iBiomed. Healthanywhere. SMS-based Asthma Signals.

Those are just the asthma-related mobile apps and wireless devices MobiHealthNews has written about. Check Google Play and you’ll find nearly 250 Android apps for learning about, treating, tracking and living with the chronic respiratory disease. And there are more on the way.

Sure, there are more than 1,000 available for diabetes, even though the two diseases have pretty much the same prevalence in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25 million Americans, or 8 percent of the population, had asthma in 2009. About the same number had diabetes, the CDC says, and 7 million of those people do not even know they have diabetes.

Diabetes might get more attention from the mobile health community because of the cost it extracts from society. That disease cost $174 billion for treatment and in lost productivity and premature death in 2007, while asthma carried a national price tag of $56 billion that year, according to the CDC.

Still, $56 billion is a lot of money, so the development rightly continues.

IMS Health is putting its Allergy Alert app into Ford vehicles, and WellDoc has been testing its own offering with Ford Motor Co. RTI International and Virginia Commonwealth University are developing and testing BreathEasy with the help of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. Massive Health is looking at asthma as well, though that well-funded and publicized company has been pretty quiet this year.

MobiHealthNews reported this month that AT&T is building its own sensor to measure pollutants that could trigger asthma attacks and warn people about poor air quality. Outside the Health 2.0 Conference in San Francisco in October, I got a demo of AsthmaWin, a disease management app with a gaming element, from Jeffrey Cooper, CEO of Bowie, Md.-based small business CooperSoft.

Since then, we have learned from MiBiz that Grand Rapids, Mich., entrepreneur Keith Brophy and his latest company, Ideomed has developed an app called Abriiz that focuses on treatment and prevention of asthma in children.

Working with the Asthma & Allergy Association of Michigan and Grand Rapids-based integrated delivery system Spectrum Health, Ideomed has just wrapped up a 31-week clinical trial in rural Georgia and has another trial underway in its home state. A third test involving 60 children with severe asthma will start next year, MiBiz reports.

This is all good news because the evidence base is lacking on whether asthma apps in general are effective, according to a June report from the New England Health Institute.

Ideomed is trialing its app in rural and urban environments, in both cold and warm climates. Cooper, an African-American, is looking at the general population, but knows that asthma disproportionately affects minority communities.

In 2009, Dr. Eric Topol listed asthma among his top 10 targets for wireless medicine. Good thing so many companies were listening.

Unlike a multitude of “health” apps meant to appeal to fitness buffs or simply aficionados of eye candy, these products address treatment and management of a debilitating, expensive chronic disease. Quite a few warn users of potential air quality hazards that could set off asthma attacks and other respiratory conditions that otherwise might land people in the hospital.

Medtronic chips in to MC10’s latest $10M round

By: Brian Dolan | Dec 17, 2012        

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MC10 CEO David Icke

MC10's CEO David Icke

The flexible, bendable digital health sensor company MC10 announced this week that two new strategic investors led a $10 million third round of funding in the company. MC10 named Medtronic as the first company but did not reveal the other — only noting that it is a “consumer health company” that is a “clear leader” in its field. MC10 has previously announced a deal with consumer health company Reebok to launch its first product into the market in 2013: the Sports Impact Indicator, a mesh skull cap that athletes can wear under their helmet to detect the likelihood of a concussion.

As part of the investment deal, Medtronic’s Dr. Stephen Oesterle, the SVP of Medicine and Technology at that company, will join MC10 as a board observer.

Oesterle stated in a written statement that “several of [Medtronic’s] our business units have been collaborating with MC10 for many years, and this investment should catalyze an expanded relationship between our two companies.”

According to the company, MC10 devices will be used both inside and outside the body. Their technology sensors include those that monitor head impact, heart rate, brain activity, muscle function, body temperature and hydration. MC10 also hints that it is developing “an entirely new class of intelligent medical devices with embedded sensors for enhanced sensing and therapeutic capabilities.”

The Wall Street Journal interviewed MC10 CEO David Icke this week about the company’s future plans, the WSJ’s Yuliya Chernova reports:

“Now MC10 has a prototype of a sticker-like patch that can be worn by consumers, that determines a person’s skin type, and can refer the person on theirs smartphones to the product optimal for their skin characteristics. This type of product could be on the market in 12 to 18 months, said Icke. A sticker like that can also measure someone’s exposure to ultraviolet light and alert the uses to the need to reapply their sunblock, for example. For the maker of lotions and sunblocks, the product enables ‘that digital connection to the consumer that’s a much better, deeper connection,’ said Icke.”

Google adds activity tracking to Android app

By: Jonah Comstock | Dec 17, 2012        

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google activity summary

Earlier this month, when Google updated one of its premiere Android applications, it quietly added a personal activity tracker.

Google Now is an Android-only app that uses Google services to smartly deliver users various kinds of information to help them throughout their day – without them having to ask. When Google updated the application at the beginning of December, they didn’t mention the feature, called the “Activity Summary” in their official blog post, but the sharp eyes at MIT Technology Review picked up on it.

There’s only minimal information about the feature, one of 25 “cards” within the app, available on the Google Now page. It delivers a monthly activity report of time spent walking or cycling, measured passively by the phone itself, and displays it alongside the previous month’s data for comparison.

Google’s history with personal health monitoring is somewhat dramatic. The company launched Google Health, a personal health record, in 2008. The service was discontinued in 2011 because the product failed to scale beyond a relatively small group of dedicated patient users, and also because new CEO Larry Page wanted to re-focus the company. The failure of Google Health has become a major case study for developing digital consumer health services.

Although Google Health wasn’t designed to be an activity tracker, it did have an open API that allowed it to integrate with trackers like Fitbit and the Withings weight scale. The activity tracker built into Google Now is a subtle addition, included with almost no fanfare. But it could be a way for Google to test the waters before making another entry into the world of mobile health.

GigaOM suggested that Google Now could be paving the way for Project Glass, a Google initiative to put the functionality of a smartphone into a pair of glasses with a heads up display. Project Glass has been a big driver of interest in the wearables market, which still mostly consists of activity trackers. If Google Glass functions as a tracker at launch, that could be cause for worry for makers of wearable trackers.

Masimo offers iPhone-enabled pulse ox to climbers, pilots

By: Jonah Comstock | Dec 17, 2012        

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Masimo, a medical device maker founded in 1989, has released a commercially-available iOS-enabled pulse oximeter called the iSpO2. Pulse oximeters, which have long been a core product of Masimo, measure blood oxygen level and pulse rate by shining light through the fingertip and measuring the absorption of different wavelengths.

The product is not FDA cleared and doesn’t have a CE Mark, because the company says it’s intended for sports and aviation use. Both climbers and pilots could use the device to quickly check for symptoms of hypoxia or altitude sickness, both of which are associated with lower blood oxygenation. reported that the company is seeking regulatory clearance and plans to release a medical version in the future.

The iSpO2 clips to the user’s fingertip and connects to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch via a 30-pin connector, displaying the reading on the Apple device screen. The company doesn’t mention support for the iPhone 5, which lacks a 30-pin connector. UPDATE: Masimo wrote to MobiHealthNews that the iSpO2 does work with the iPhone5 via the Lightning adapter.

In addition to blood oxygenation, the device measures pulse rate and perfusion index (the strength of the arterial pulse), using the same pulse oximetry technology as Masimo’s medical products. The app can store that data, chart it over time, and email it to friends.

The iSpO2 is Masimo’s first consumer product. It’s available for purchase in the Amazon store for $249.

MobiHealthNews wrote about Tinké, an iPhone-enabled pulse oximetry device, in January. Tinké, by Zensorium, is now available for purchase, although the website doesn’t specifically use the terminology “pulse oximeter” and their product doesn’t appear to be FDA-cleared either. It sells for $119. Medical device maker Nonin makes a wireless pulse oximeter that is Bluetooth-enabled, but it doesn’t specifically connect with iOS devices and it isn’t marketed directly to consumers.

Azumio’s Instant Heart Rate uses the iPhone camera to take a user’s pulse. Although the app doesn’t track blood oxygenization, the App Store description formerly claimed to use “the same technique used by medical pulse oximeters.” When MobiHealthNews wrote about the app in September, some commenters questioned that claim. The description now reads “leveraging a similar technique as used in pulse oximeters.”

Some trust mobile health tools, doctors equally

By: Jonah Comstock | Dec 17, 2012        

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philips surveyMore than a third of American adults think self-monitoring is the key to living a longer life, according to a survey commissioned by Philips Healthcare and conducted by Opinion Research Corporation. The survey of 1,003 participants included questions about online symptom checking, home diagnosis, and self-monitoring, and the results showed a growing acceptance of and even reliance on these sorts of home health technologies.

According to the survey, 41 percent of respondents said they were comfortable using symptom checking websites for home diagnostics and 49 percent were comfortable with symptom checkers and home vitals monitors automatically reporting information back to their doctors. In general, respondents were more likely to be comfortable with home vitals monitors than mobile apps when it comes to sharing data. A spokesperson from Philips told MobiHealthNews that 38 percent said they were comfortable with home monitors sharing their data versus 29 percent reporting the same about mobile apps.

A substantial number of Americans are turning to home health technologies as often as they turn to physicians for health information. A quarter of respondents said they trust symptom checkers and home-based diagnostic tools as much as they trust the doctor, and 27 percent said they use home tools instead of visiting the doctor. The survey also found that 28 percent of men trust symptom checker websites, symptom checker mobile apps or home-based vital sign monitors as much as they trust their doctor, compared with 21 percent of women.

One in 10 adults took it one step further, saying “they might already be dead or severely incapacitated” if it weren’t for web-based health information.