Iron deficiency in human blood not only indicates anemia but can also signify malnutrition. Researchers  and health workers in the field, particularly those focused on detecting malnutrition in children in developing countries, need fast, inexpensive, safe, and accurate hemoglobin level tests.

Enter UbiComp. The University of Washington’s Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp) research lab assigns interdisciplinary teams of students from various computer science and engineering departments to work on real world problems. The teams have faculty advisors from those same departments. UbiComp also collaborates with Microsoft Research and the Intel Science and Technology Center for Pervasive Computing. UbiComp took on the challenge of developing a hemoglobin field test. The requirements included developing an accurate method to measure hemoglobin without drawing blood that was also cheap enough for wide use in a developing world. The result is HemaApp.

HemaApp uses smartphone cameras with an app to measure hemoglobin. Blood testing for hemoglobin is the “gold standard” against which HemaApp is compared. HemaApp measures the absorption level of blood plasma and hemoglobin at different light wavelengths with the smartphone’s camera. Depending on the number of red blood cells in the blood, its color changes. The team considered building lights for the test into a phone case but discovered that incandescent lights provided the necessary wavelengths. The HemaApp algorithm uses machine learning to derive a final hemoglobin score. In validity testing, the HemaApp team compared their results to those obtained from a non-specified FDA approved noninvasive hemoglobin testing device and found HemaApp’s results were  comparable.

In addition to providing a field tool useful in detecting childhood malnutrition, HemaApp could also be useful for patients with anemia who want to track their iron levels. HemaApp has personal significance for me, as I have an ongoing issue with blood iron and would love the ability to quickly and accurately test my iron level at home.