Is There a Doctor in the House? Try Your Cell Phone

Scientists warn that radiation from cell phone transponders can be harmful to your health. But it turns out that while cell phones may increase the risk of cancer, they can also help prevent it: Thanks to a technology now being developed in Israel, cell phones will soon be able to detect breast cancer, as well as various types of heart problems.

All that is needed to turn the cell phone into a diagnostic tool is a simple infrared camera, which is already built into most of the newer cell phones, and the appropriate software. The device, which is still under development and has not yet received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is expected to be particularly useful for detecting breast cancer - a disease that afflicts one out of nine Israeli women.

According to the developer, Dr. Nitzan Yaniv, a cell phone examination will provide a much better diagnosis than the breast checks that many women do themselves, since the results of the exam will be sent directly to a medical center, where they will be analyzed to determine whether further testing is needed. He said that the device will also be useful for women who do not get regular mammograms.

Yaniv is actually a psychologist by training, and he discovered infrared photography during his work with biofeedback. In biofeedback, infrared cameras are used to obtain data about a person's physical state, and based on this data, the psychologist offers guidance on how the patient can gain more control over his body and thereby improve his health. Yaniv realized that a similar device could be used to diagnose various illnesses.

Yaniv's camera is based on two cameras made by British firms, both of which were approved by the FDA this year for use in diagnosing breast cancer. Each of these cameras uses a different technique: One analyzes temperature differences among different parts of the breast, while another analyzes oxygen flow to different parts of the breast.

When Yaniv came up with his idea, his first challenge was how to turn a $5,000 biofeedback machine into something that anybody could afford. He concluded that the bulky machinery would have to be largely replaced by software that would perform the same functions. Working with a team of programmers and technicians, he eventually developed a sensor that could be attached to a cell phone and would do the same job as the biofeedback machine.

He then took the idea to the cell phone operator Cellcom, which determined that the sensor could easily be integrated into the existing camera that is part of most cell phones nowadays. Cellcom officials involved in the project also dismissed the fear that the infrared camera could be used by Peeping Toms to photograph people's bodies through their clothing.

At the same time, Yaniv explored the possibility of using the device to detect heart problems as well as breast cancer. Working with other programmers and researchers, including cardiologist Professor Amos Katz of Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva, he developed software that won second place in a European Union competition for new medical technologies. That in turn won him both media exposure and funding from the Industry Ministry's Office of the Chief Scientist. The "cardiometer" is now being tested at Soroka, after which Yaniv will apply for FDA approval for it.

Though Yaniv has not yet tried to bring his products to market, he is confident that he will succeed where others before him have failed. The main reason that previous attempts to make home testing devices for heart disease have failed, he said, is that "all the companies first tried to make new hardware, and only afterward to develop the software. And then they got stuck - usually because of money problems." His system, however, relies entirely on existing hardware that can be bought off the shelf.