New medical roles for telephones, marijuana?

Phone technology may play dramatic new role in health care

In the next 12 months, doctors will be able to make house calls where they diagnose and treat the patients on the spot using their phones. Researchers and physicians in the field are about to start running on-the-spot tests for environmental toxins, medical diagnostics, food safety and more with their smartphones. University of Illinois researchers have developed a cradle and app for the iPhone that uses the phone’s built-in camera and processing power as a biosensor to detect toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses and other molecules.

Having such sensitive biosensing capabilities in the field could enable on-the-spot tracking of groundwater contamination, combine the phone’s GPS data with biosensing data to map the spread of pathogens. It could also provide immediate and inexpensive medical diagnostic tests in a person’s living room. This technology can be used for contaminant checks in the food processing and distribution chain. The technology uses a special cradle for the iPhone that is outfitted with special sensors.

“A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones. They can detect molecular things, like pathogens, disease biomarkers or DNA, things that are currently only done in big diagnostic labs with lots of expense and large volumes of blood,” said researcher/developer Brian Cummingham, who is with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For the handheld iPhone biosensor, a normal microscope slide is coated with the photonic material. The slide is primed to react to a specific target molecule. The entire test takes only a few minutes. Although the cradle holds only about $200 of optical components, it reportedly performs as accurately as a large $50,000 spectrophotometer in the laboratory.

Currently, the researchers are working to improve the manufacturing process for the iPhone cradle and are working on a cradle for Android phones as well. They hope to begin making the cradles available next year.

Marijuana users may have better blood sugar control

Regular marijuana use appears to be associated with favorable diabetic control. A new study looking at a large number of marijuana users has found that they had significantly lower fasting insulin and were less likely to be insulin resistant. These are two important risk factors for developing diabetes and the study suggests that marijuana may have some active ingredient that helps prevent diabetes.

Marijuana (Cannabis sativa) has been used for centuries to relieve pain, improve mood and increase appetite. A synthetic form of its active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has already been approved to treat side-effects of chemotherapy, AIDS-induced anorexia, nausea and other medical conditions.

With the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado and the legalization of medical marijuana in 19 states and the District of Columbia, marijuana is now being looked at much more closely for what it may and may not be able to do. In Alaska, voters approved medical marijuana legislation back in 1998.

A multicenter research team analyzed data obtained during the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) between 2005 and 2010. They studied data from 4,657 patients who completed a drug use questionnaire, and the researchers measured fasting insulin and glucose levels. They found that participants who reported using marijuana in the past month had lower levels of fasting insulin and had higher levels of the so-called good cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol).

These associations were weaker among those who reported using marijuana at least once, but not in the past 30 days, suggesting that the impact of marijuana use on insulin and insulin resistance exists during periods of recent use. Current users had 16 percent lower fasting insulin levels than participants who reported never having used marijuana in their lifetimes.

Large waist circumference is linked to diabetes risk. In the current study there were also significant associations between marijuana use and smaller waist circumferences.

“Previous epidemiologic studies have found lower prevalence rates of obesity and diabetes mellitus in marijuana users compared to people who have never used marijuana, suggesting a relationship between cannabinoids and peripheral metabolic processes, but ours is the first study to investigate the relationship between marijuana use and fasting insulin, glucose, and insulin resistance,” said lead investigator Dr. Murray Mittleman, who is with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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