UConn professor develops a diagnoses to sickle cell disease using a cell phone and magnets

Dr. Savas Tasoglu of the Tasoglu Research Group worked with a UConn graduate student and colleagues at Yale, MIT and Harvard to develop the sickle cell diagnosis technology. (Screenshot/Tasoglu Research Group)

An efficient low-cost device composed of a cell phone and magnets was developed to diagnose and monitor sickle cell disease by University of Connecticut mechanical engineering professor Savas Tasoglu and UConn first year graduate student Stephanie Knowlton

The pair also worked with researchers from Yale, MIT and Harvard.

“The device basically separates micro particles based on their densities and magnetic signature,” Tasoglu said. “If you’re able to separate them based on their densities then this can be a useful tool for diagnostic applications.”

The idea is creating an inexpensive, portable and also label-free approach to diagnose the disease. Label free is important because we don’t want to use expensive biochemicals to check these cells.

Along with being a new way for sickle cell diagnosis, the device places emphasis on its affordability, portability and efficiency.

“The idea is creating an inexpensive, portable and also label-free approach to diagnose the disease. Label free is important because we don’t want to use expensive biochemicals to check these cells,” Tasoglu said.

Sickle cell disease, or sickle cell anemia, is a disease associated with red blood cells. In this condition, hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen, is mutated to become crescent or sickle shaped instead of the normal disk shape. 

The sickle shape is less flexible and can stick to blood vessels, blocking the flow and preventing oxygen from reaching tissues throughout the body. In the United States, this disease is most prominent in African Americans.

The project started in August of last year when professor Tasoglu first came to UConn. The device created by Tasoglu, Knowlton and others is a simpler and easier way to examine blood samples in order to monitor and diagnose sickle cell disease.

Simple and low cost technology allows other areas of the world easy access to testing that may not have been available before.

“For instance in Africa, in resource limited settings, they don’t have these microscopes or expensive equipment, or in some cases trained personnel. So the setup should be simple to use and should be low cost so that in these kinds of resource limited settings they could be used,” Tasoglu said.

The device is also efficient and convenient because the sample of blood needed for analysis is small and easy to obtain. The process is much like the finger pricking most diabetes tests use. 

“I think these results have real potential to impact people around the world, like in parts of Africa, where 3 percent of children born have sickle cell disease but there still aren’t effective testing procedures in place there because they can’t afford the equipment we have here” Knowlton said.

Knowlton earned her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering with minors in mathematics and materials science and engineering last year at UConn. She is now a grad student continuing her study of biomedical engineering and continues her research in Tasoglu’s lab.

In her senior year Knowlton designed, 3D printed, and tested the device which attaches to and uses the camera of a smartphone for image analysis of blood cells. Two magnets with the same poles facing each other are placed right behind the cell phones camera.

Both Tasoglu and Knowlton are excited for what comes next in their research and development of this device.

“To me, this project isn’t finished until it can be used out in the real world, and that has been a great motivation as I’m starting grad school.”


Brenna Kelly is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at brenna.kelly@uconn.edu.