February 2013



Proving that there is always ‘an app for that’, it will very soon be possible to use your smartphone as a portable analytical chemistry lab, testing urine samples for the presence of up to 10 chemical and physical biomarkers. Hypochondriacs the world over will, no doubt, be delighted that the software can diagnose up to 25 conditions for them to agonise over, from diabetes to urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Resisting the temptation to call the software ‘iPee’, 29-year-old MIT graduate and entrepreneur Myshkim Ingawale announced the app – actually called ‘Uchek’ – at the Technology Education and Design (TED) conference in Los Angeles earlier this week.

Readers will be relieved to discover that a waterproof phone is not required to answer the call of nature. Instead one pees into a small cup, dips a diagnostic strip into one’s urine then waits for two minutes before photographing the strip with one’s phone. The Uchek software then cleverly colour-corrects the image and compares it to known standards – giving an indication of how much glucose, bilirubin, proteins, ketones, leukocytes and nitrites are present in the sample, as well as its specific gravity.

For the less medically savvy the software hints at what abnormally high or low levels of these various markers might mean. Tap the leukocytes tab, for instance, and the app will warn you that a UTI could be brewing. Ouch! Time for a trip to the GP.

Analysis of urine is nothing new, of course. Physicians have been looking at the stuff for years, using it to provide information on human health. The dipstick is the most common method of analysis, usually containing about 10 coloured patches that react differently according to the chemistry to which they are exposed. Although the dipsticks themselves are cheap and disposable, the machines that read them are certainly not, and require a technician to operate them. What Uchek does is take this diagnosis stage from the doctor and put it in the hands of the patient.

This is not as barmy as it first sounds. For those managing a disease like diabetes, a routine trip to the GP just to have your pee looked at can be a tedious use of time, and a drain on the resources of the clinic. Much better to be able to look at a sample in the comfort of one’s own bathroom and go to the GP when there is a problem.

Uchek will also be of interest to those promoting healthcare in third-world countries or locations that have poor transport infrastructure. It’s expensive to fly a doctor or fieldworker out into the African bush; much cheaper to send a $100 smartphone than can relay results back to base over a 3G or 4G cell phone network.

Currently, Uchek is making its way through Apple’s iTunes Store approval process, while being tested more clinically at King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, India. When it finally goes on sale it should retail in the UK for about £13, which includes several test strips and a colour chart to help with calibration. An Android version is expected to follow shortly.

In the Chemistry World office we are hopeful that the ability to Like your friend’s leukocytes on Facebook, or follow their glucose on Twitter, is not part of the app’s first release.  

Ian Farrell

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These compounds are helping your eyes and brain read these words right now! Find out how opsins, the molecules of sight, work in this week’s Chemistry in its element.

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The Naked Scientists

You will have heard of The Naked Scientists. They do loads of very interesting things but, importantly for Chemistry World, they have been supporting us for years with the recording of our podcasts. Well, now it is our turn to support them so at Chemistry World we have decided to risk leaving our bunker as often as we can (no mean feat!) to take part in their podcasts and radio programmes. We will bring what in our opinion are the most interesting chemical sciences-related stories of the week and discuss them with Chris and his team and guests in as interactive and entertaining  a manner as possible (or so we hope!).

We have already taken part in a few programmes so, for example, you can hear Laura talking about a new marshmallow-like material that can selectively absorb oil (and this is the CW story: Mopping up oil spills with marshmallows), explosion-powered nanorobots  (CW story: Soft robots take a leap forward) or you can listen to me talking about how to sober up inebriated mice (CW story: Enzyme nano-parcels sober up drunken mice).

We hope you enjoy these clips as well as the full recordings and future radio shows – don’t touch that dial!

Bibiana Campos Seijo

PS: How many times can someone say ‘actually’ in one sentence? I’m sure I’ve beaten a record…

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You might have noticed in today’s news that three Silicon Valley squillionaires have funded a new megabucks prize for life sciences, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. The 11 initial winners get a cool $3 million (three MILLION dollars) straight from the chequebooks of Mark Zuckerberg (Mr Facebook), Sergey Brin (Mr Google) and Yuri Milner (the other one). Actually, do they still have chequebooks in Silicon Valley? Probably not.

The winners also get the job honour of selecting the winners of future awards – unlike some other awards you might be familiar with, it will be possible for more than three people to win the prize in any one year. (more…)

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A favourite compound for the geochemists in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast – Uk37 alkenones, which help them understand what the oceans used to be like millions of years ago.

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Recently, some soul searching has been going on in US graduate chemistry education circles.  PhDs have been taking on average six years to finish up, the unemployment level of chemistry graduates has hit record highs of 4.6% and safety standards in university labs have been under the microscope after the tragic death of Sheri Sangji. These problems have been gone over in some detail in a recent report from the American Chemical Society. (more…)

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It was known as Dr Ehrlich’s magic bullet – the drug so famous they made a film about it. But was the deadly disease that Salvarsan cured? Find out in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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They were the wonder molecules – that turned into an atmospheric nightmare. Find out about chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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Modern computer games consoles have controllers that vibrate – when you crash your car in a racing game or get shot in a shoot-em-up, you get a jolt through your fingers, which is designed to increase the realism of the game and enhance your experience.

Imagine if you could do the same thing with chemistry. You sketch out some molecules, then move them together to see if (or how) they will react. As virtual electron clouds approach each other, they push back, resisting your efforts to push them any closer. You try different angles until you find the right geometry, or push hard enough to force them to react with each other. (more…)

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