Your toothbrush: a tool to diagnose cancer and Alzheimer's?

30 April 2015

Toothbrushes and smartphones could help detect diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer in the future, according to technologists.

Tiny nanopore sequencers that are capable of analysing DNA for genetic markers that characterise certain diseases could soon be integrated into household appliances.

At the WIRED Health Technology conference, Oxford Nanopore Technologies spoke about their vision for mobile genomics using the MinION, a portable hand-held gene sequencer created by the company.

Chief Technology Officer Clive Brown said: "Our big dream is to move towards self-quantification, and we're going to make a version that works on handheld mobile phones. It can measure your blood markers and collate that data to track changes in your daily biology.”

With the falling cost and dramatic reduction in size of DNA sequencers the possibility of ‘bedside’ genomics is moving closer to reality. Ten years ago the cost of sequencing a genome was measured in the tens of millions of dollars; now the cost can in some cases be below $1000. The MinION device, a low-throughput sequencer launched two years ago, was the first portable device that could do rapid DNA sequencing in real-time; the MinION Access Program (MAP) is providing limited test release to selected recipients for £650 ($1000). 

Despite some teething problems with the MinION device, there is a lot of positive interest. Already, it has been used to test for Ebola in West Africa, and to track salmonella poisoning. Oxford Nanopore have also created a startup company, Metichor, to synch up data analytics tools with MinION outputs.

Clive Brown sees their products being used as a self-quantification tool in the near future, rather than offering diagnostic advice, allowing direct-to-consumer and (DTC) marketing. He said that data security concerns are no different from those for other health-related devices such as the Fitbit, but that security is an issue that the whole DNA sequencing industry need to overcome. 

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