The BiliCam app can test babies for jaundice

Doctors and engineers from the University of Washington have developed an app that can test babies for jaundice.

Jaundice, which causes skin to turn yellow, happens when someone has a build-up of bilirubin, a chemical that’s normally broken down by the liver. It’s common in newborns and usually clears up within a couple of weeks. But in a minority of cases, it can be a symptom of a more serious health condition, such as a thyroid disorder, or an obstruction of the bile duct. If it becomes severe and is left untreated, it can even lead to brain damage, so it’s important to diagnose it early.

The BiliCam app works with a small colour comparison card that is placed on a baby’s stomach before taking a photo of them with a smartphone camera. The app then analyses the picture (taking into account different skin tones and lighting conditions) and quickly delivers a reading of the baby’s bilirubin level.

While all babies are tested for jaundice when they’re in hospital, it often develops after they’ve been taken home, so this could be helpful for new parents (or their GPs). It could also be used as a screening tool in hospitals, where existing non-invasive tests involve looking at the skin (which is subjective), or using complex and expensive machinery.

In a trial on 100 newborns, the Washington team tested BiliCam against the existing screening device as well as blood tests. While blood provided definitive proof, the app proved to be as or more accurate than the hospital’s non-invasive test equipment, meaning it could be used to indicate whether a blood test is necessary.

They plan to test the app on 1000 more babies of different races to ensure it can be as precise as possible. They hope that it could one day provide cheap and accurate testing in the developing world as well as closer to home. It can’t be downloaded yet, as all U.S apps that make health claims now have to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration, but its inventors hope to make it available within the next couple of years.

Image credit: University of Washington.

Diane Shipley