A consortium of academic and industrial researchers including Brunel University has been awarded a £5.7 million grant to improve sexual health through the use of new technology.
The eSTI² (electronic self-testing instruments for STIs) project, led by St George’s, University of London in partnership with Brunel University, aims to develop self-test devices that can quickly identify any sexually transmitted infection (STI) and communicate the information wirelessly with a mobile phone or computer to help patients understand and seek out treatment they might need.
The Medical Research Council and the UK Clinical Research Collaboration awarded a £4 million grant to eSTI²’s consortium of academic and industrial researchers, with an additional contribution of £1.7 million provided by industrial partners.
The Brunel members of the consortium are Professor Wamadeva Balachandran (Bala), Professor of Electronic Systems, and Dr Kate Hone, Reader in Information Systems and Computing.
Brunel is involved in researching several elements of the eSTI² system. Professor Balachandran is developing how the device can quickly and accurately detect STI pathogen nucleic acids. He explained: “The self-test device will use micro and nanotechnologies to detect multiple STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea. These would then be available to use in different settings, such as pharmacies or even vending machines.
“Users will be able to add their samples to the device, which could then process the sample and communicate the results to a computer or mobile phone. Software on the phone or computer will analyse the data, make a diagnosis and recommend a course of action.
“The consortium’s vision for the future (7-10 years from now) is to implement STI self-testing capability in a mobile phone in conjunction with a disposable cartridge onto which raw sample can be introduced. We will collaborate closely with our academic and industrial partners to develop robust, safe and affordable rapid, ‘self-test’ STI microdiagnostics.”
Dr Hone is focusing on the software design and interface to encourage the desired response from patients, including the uptake of treatment, notifying a partner, and accessing safer sex messages. The eSTI² system could even make an appointment at a GP surgery or sexual health clinic, or send a message to the nearest pharmacy and use GPS to direct the user there, where a prescription will already have been prepared.
“The use of mobile phone technology in the community has great potential to facilitate the diagnosis and management of STIs,” Dr Hone explained. “Part of the work at Brunel will focus on the design of mobile phone interactions with patients to encourage the desired behavioural responses.
“The research requires a cross-disciplinary approach and we’ll be working closely with public health experts within the consortium to understand the possible impacts of technological design decisions on patient behaviour.”
As well as Brunel University and St George’s, the consortium includes University College, London, Warwick and Queen Mary Universities, the Health Protection Agency, and industrial partners.
The consortium’s proposal was put together as a direct response to the epidemic of STIs in the UK – which rose by 36 per cent between 2000 and 2009 – and the reluctance for people to go to their doctor to find out if they are infected. The project will bring together researchers with backgrounds in telecommunications, microengineering, microbiology, and public health, as well as NHS technology adoption teams.
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