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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