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Utah doctor's cellphone device diagnoses deadly diseases

Published October 2, 2013 3:17 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The district hospital in Bundibugyo was built out of cinder blocks, with "Cholera Ward" scrawled on the wall. No electricity. No running water.

When an outbreak of ebola virus struck the Ugandan district, Joel Ehrenkranz was studying the effects of iodine deficiency near the border between Uganda and the Congo. He rushed in to help, and what he found horrified him.

"People were dying because of a lack of point-of-care diagnostics," said Ehrenkranz, director of diabetes and endocrinology at Intermountin Medical Center. "People would be triaged into 'Sick' and 'Not sick' quarantines. Some people had ebola, some didn't. But by the time they went out [of the building], everybody had ebola."

The outbreak — which affected 149 people and cost 37 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — inspired Ehrenkranz to think about how they could avoid such "death sentence" scenarios. He noted that the one thing that worked, even in Uganda, was his cellphone. A seed was planted.

Some six years later, Ehrenkranz and his company, i-calQ, are among 12 finalists in the Nokia Sensing XChallenge for his brainchild, a smartphone device that aims to provide professional-quality testing and analysis for a variety of conditions, including thyroid disease, HIV, syphilis, diabetes and kidney disease. It can also test cortisol in saliva, a key indicator of stress levels. The device interprets saliva, blood or urine samples on either a strip similar to a take-home pregnancy test or a glass vial, and then, using the cellphone's flash and camera, uploads the image for instant analysis using algorithms developed by Ehrenkranz.

"It works unbelievably well," Ehrenkranz said. "It's a combination of a field lab, plus a medical specialist."

Ehrenkranz says he believes the technology, which he patented in 2011, has the potential to become ubiquitous not only in the developing world, but in clinics, ICUs and emergency rooms around the United States. He uses thyroid disease as an example: You might spend days waiting on tests, months waiting on doctor appointments and hundreds of dollars to pay for it all. Using i-calQ's smartphone device, Ehrenkranz says, it will cost you 20 minutes and $10.

Ehrenkranz is currently collaborating with the veterinary program at Colorado State (yes, it works for animals, too), the Harvard School of Public Health and the government of Tanzania. His company, which was co-founded by CEO Pamela Turbeville, has six employees spread between Arizona, Utah, England and Tanzania. A career medical innovator, Ehrenkranz says Utah has been a great source of low-cost talent — "You price things in Salt Lake, you multiply them by 10, and that's what they cost in California."

The winner receives $525,000, and five others will be awarded $120,000.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper