Jaundice in newborns is a common condition, particularly in preterm infants and babies less than a week old. However, jaundice is sometimes hard to see, which is why a team of physicians and engineers from the University of Washington developed BiliCam, a smartphone app that checks babies for the telltale signs of jaundice. The team hopes to eventually release BiliCam for parents to use at home. Read on to see how it works.
Newborn jaundice occurs when the level of bilirubin, a natural byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells, builds up in a baby’s blood. This occurs because the baby’s liver isn’t developed enough to remove the bilirubin from the bloodstream. Bilirubin is yellow, hence it causes a yellowing of the baby’s skin. While jaundice doesn’t often require treatment, it can sometimes indicate another health issue and occasionally lead to complications — so it does need to be checked by a doctor or health professional should symptoms present.
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The BiliCam app uses a smartphone’s camera and flash in combination with a simple color calibration card no bigger than a business card. Users can download the app, place the card on a baby’s belly, and then take a picture with the card in view. The card calibrates the phone’s camera and accounts for different lighting conditions and skin tones. Data from the photo is sent to the cloud and analyzed, and a report on the newborn’s bilirubin levels is sent almost instantly to the parent’s or healthcare worker’s phone. The app uses cloud-based algorithms to produce its report, with the advantage that these can be improved and refined over time for greater accuracy. To date, clinical trials have been undertaken with 100 babies and their families, but the UW team hopes to test the app on an additional 1,000 babies to broaden the database of natural skin tones.
Currently, there is a noninvasive test for jaundice, but it is expensive and not practical for home use. Visual testing is more common, but not always accurate. A blood test is always used to confirm jaundice and BiliCam won’t replace that; however, it will give a more reliable diagnosis than an unassisted visual check. In addition to the ease of home implementation in the smartphone-saturated developed world, the app has great potential for improving jaundice diagnosis in developing countries where current tests are prohibitively expensive. Says UW professor of pediatrics James Taylor, “We’re really excited about the potential of this in resource-poor areas, something that can make a difference in places where there aren’t tools to measure bilirubin but there’s good infrastructure for mobile phones.” The team have filed patents for BiliCam and hope to have it available for doctors within a year. Release to the general public would take a little longer, after FDA approval.
Photos by University of Washington