Open Access

The world of biomedical apps: their uses, limitations, and potential

Scientific Phone Apps and Mobile Devices20162:6

https://doi.org/10.1186/s41070-016-0009-2

Received: 29 February 2016

Accepted: 29 April 2016

Published: 19 July 2016

Abstract

Many significant biomedical discoveries of old were made in the private property of famous scientists e.g. Leeuwenhoek and Archimedes. Today, discoveries are made in brightly-lit, hi-tech, ergonomic buildings that house research institutes. While such development is advantageous in many aspects, the spatial restriction of research into well-organized structures may delay and limit the spontaneity necessary for discoveries. The smartphone and peripheral mobile devices have the potential to not only increase the productivity and mobility of biomedical research, but also restore some freedom from spatial constraints. One possible way this can occur is the development of a mobile biomedical lab that allows researchers to carry out core research processes ‘on-the-go’ without being spatially restrained within a building or availability of equipment. For this exciting prospect, we surveyed the Google and Apple app stores, discussing the limitations and the potential of this area. Based on the developments, it appears to be just a matter of time before the majority of biomedical labs processes and equipment become mobile, centred on the smartphone and peripheral devices.

Keywords

SmartphoneMobile labBiomedical researchSpatial mobility

Introduction

Many significant scientific discoveries of the past were made in spatial freedom of the discoverers, often in the very homes of the scientists themselves or unusual places such as in a bath tub. In the biomedical field, the discovery of animacules by the “Father of Microbiology” - Antonie van Leeuwenhoek occurred in his draper shop. Today, biomedical research is typically done in brightly-lit, hi-tech, ergonomic buildings that house expensive laboratory equipment. While such structures have clear benefits in providing systematic progress and ease of operation, the spatial localization has a small con. No longer can the brilliant thinker, kept awake by great ideas, simply get up from bed and proceed to the basement lab to test something. Unless the scientist lives near the lab or never leaves the lab, the bathtub “Eureka” moment of Archimedes (as legends go) must be delayed for him to run to the lab and run experiments using some expensive equipment. To an extent, the quote “structures become shackles” from Christopher Nolan’s 2012 Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” holds some truth in this context.

Nonetheless, recent developments in mobile devices may be a solution to restoring the much needed spontaneity and also boost productivity and convenience.

Smartphones have revolutionised the world we live in. With global smartphone number predicted to exceed 6.1 billion by 2020 (Lunden, 2015), the number of apps are also burgeoning. In the area of biomedical research, mobile apps promise to increase the productivity and mobility of biomedical research as a truly mobile biomedical lab (Sim et al., 2015).

The nature of modern biomedical research incurs high costs. From expensive specialized equipment and consumables, there are other considerations involving rental, safety, and specialized infrastructure (e.g. for tissue culture). On top of the equipment, computers are required to control these devices and facilitate data analysis (e.g. flow cytometry). This necessary pairing of computer and equipment further constrains the researcher to a specific location within the lab. In this aspect, mobile apps and peripheral devices that displace computers or other equipment can aid to mobilize research processes, contributing to significant savings not only in terms of equipment costs, but also reducing the rental space and equipment setup and delivery costs.

Such connectivity can be fulfilled utilizing the in-built wireless connectivity (WIFI, Bluetooth, NFC, Infrared, etc.) of the typical modern smartphone. These have already allowed add-on peripheral devices and sensors to further expand the reach of capabilities, e.g. thermostat sensors connected wirelessly can further open up capabilities of the smartphone. The prospect of wirelessly connected peripheral devices most certainly open up great potential in the displacement of lab equipment and improving the mobility of biomedical research. Given that the typical new smartphone is also generally under-exploited in its processing power and range of available sensors for research purposes, there is great promise for the future development in this area. It is only a matter of time before everyone owns core lab equipment in their smartphones to do research anytime and anyplace.

Review

To date, there are already reports of smartphones being used for spectrophotometry (https://publiclab.org/wiki/smartphone-spectrometer), enzyme-linked imunosorbent assays (Medgadget, 2015 & Berg et al., 2015, see http://www.medgadget.com/2015/02/elisa-immunoassay-disease-testing-on-your-smartphone.html) and more impressively as a potential mass spectrophotometer (Nemiroski et al., 2014). Similarly, there is already a number of mobile apps available for biomedical research. As of early 2016, a search using key words such as “bioinformatics”,”biomedical”,”biomolecular”, “biotechnology”, “DNA”, “protein”, “genomes”, “colonies”, and “genes” returned more than 486 hits in Apple App Store and 1536 hits in Google Play Store. Out of these apps, only about 65 of the search results were directly relevant to biomedical research. 23 were native apps used for lab processes and 42 were hybrid apps for repository information. Ranging from laboratory calculators (‘An Array of genetic Tools from Gene Link,Inc’ app) to viewing DNA and protein structures (e.g. NDKmol app), we found the apps generally fit into nine categories: analysis & alignment tools; structure builder & viewer; equipment displacement; peripheral device dependants; laboratory calculator; protocol assistant; database and others.

Sequence analysis & alignment (see Table 1)

Table 1

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Sequence analysis and alignment”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

ALS Online

Android

Align DNA sequences

Native (Comp Lab)

None

DNA analyser

Android

Analyses DNA or RNA sequence and GC content

Native (Comp Lab)

None

DNA2App - Sequence analyzer

Android

Analyses nucleic acid sequences

Native (Expt Lab)

None

DNAApp: DNA sequence analyzer

Android & iOS

Open and analyze DNA sequencing files (ab1)

Native (Expt Lab)

None

DNA & Co

Android

Transcript and translate DNA sequences to RNA and protein sequence

Native (Comp Lab)

None

DNA Easy

Android

Reverse complement of DNA

Native (Comp Lab)

None

DNA Shot

Android

Identify and displays DNA sequences from pictures

Hybrid (Expt Lab)

Camera

DNA to RNA

iOS

Converts DNA sequence into mRNA vice versa

Native (Comp Lab)

None

DPSAT

Android

Analyze nucleotide and protein sequences

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Gene Aligner

Android

Perform pairwise gene global and local alignments, and generate dot plots for the alignment

Native (Expt Lab)

None

Genetic Code

Android

Translate nucleotide codons

Native (Comp Lab)

None

SimAlign

Android

Align sequences of genes and proteins

Native (Expt Lab)

None

Pairwise Protein Aligner

Android

Generates pair wise protein global and local alignment. A dot plot for the alignment can also be created

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Genome

iOS

Sequence instantly and transcribe sample sequences

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

Sequence analyzers allow handy and quick viewing of DNA or RNA or protein sequences on-the-go (e.g. DNA2App, see Sim et al., 2016). Some aid in opening sequencing files (e.g. DNAapp, see Nguyen, et al., 2014), bringing mobility to an analysis that was once limited to desktop/laptops. With these apps, pictures of sequences can also be processed (e.g. DNA Shot app) making impromptu lab analysis easier and more convenient than ever before, even without computers. With the sequences available, sequence alignment analyses are typically next used. However for such analysis, the small screen of portable devices often makes it challenging for viewing long sequences and perform other complex analysis. This limitation may in time be addressed by significant developments in the interface and design of smartphone technology, perhaps through gesture or eyeball tracking.

Molecular builder and protein structure viewers (Table 2)

Table 2

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Structure builder and viewer ”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

Atomdroid

Android

Include molecular viewer and builder functions for geometry optimization and Monte Carlo simulation for small molecules

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

iMolecule Builder

iOS

Support formats from PDB, Sybyl and Crystallographic information. Visualize and build 3D molecules from scratch

Native (Comp Lab)

None

iProtein

iOS

Provide access to PDB and Swiss- Prot, RefSeq, Ensembl, etc. Support accurate homology modeling by generating protein structural models

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

PocketMDS

iOS

Perform molecular dynamics simulation of Lennard-Jones fluids

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Yasaraa

Android

Support graphics, molecular modeling and docking

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Molecular Dynamics

Android

Perform molecular dynamics simulation of particle motions and thermal changes of the molecular systems

Native (Comp Lab)

None

3D-Molecule View

Android

Built on top of jmol librabry and support multiple input formats to visualize 3D molecular structure

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Ball&Stick

iOS

Support visualization and local storage of input from PDB

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

Biochemistry Mnemonics

Android

Provide an interface of the Protein Data Bank to visualize or inspect protein structures in 3D or 2D.

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

iMolview Lite

Android & iOS

Browse and view 3D protein and DNA structures

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

NDKmol - molecular viewer

Android

View three dimensional structures of proteins, nucleic acids and small molecules

Native (Comp Lab)

None

PDB Xplorer

Android

Visualize 3D structures of proteins, nucleic acids and small molecules

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Pymol

iOS

Display proteins, nucleic acids, and other chemical structures, Support formats including pdb, sdf, mol2, pse, etc.

Native (Comp Lab)

None

aKrieger et al. Bioinformatics, 30(20), 2014 [doi: btu426]

One way to study a molecule is to investigate its structure and possible structural interactions. Apps in this category allow users to visualize protein structures, build customized molecules, and perform molecular dynamic simulations under various conditions (e.g. Atomdroid app).

Equipment displacement apps (Table 3)

Table 3

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Equipment displacement”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

Colony Count

Android

Count bacterial colonies

Native (Expt Lab)

Camera

Colony Count BETA

Android

Count bacterial colonies and perform measurements of bacterial growth on agar plates.

Native (Expt Lab)

Camera

Colony Counter

iOS

Count bacterial colonies

Native (Expt Lab)

Camera

Fast Counter

iOS

Count bacterial colonies

Native (Expt Lab)

Camera

Promega Colony Counter

iOS

Count bacterial colonies; Manually mark additional colonies or remove false positives; Quadrant-zoom for easier adjustments.

Native (Expt Lab)

Camera

Gelapp: DNA&Prot Gel Analyzer

Android & iOS

Auto detection of bands and calculation of band sizes

Native (Expt Lab)

Camera

Leveraging on the inbuilt sensors, apps in this category enable the smartphone to displace laboratory equipment that are often costly and bulky. Such equipment can range from colony counters to gel documentations systems.

Colony counters alleviate an otherwise laborious tedious manual counting process in applications ranging from determining transformation efficiencies (Chan et al., 2013) to determining microbial load in clinical samples and food samples. Colony counting apps provide an automated processing of agar plate images and count the detected colonies. Although the accuracy of the detection is often dampened by factors such as the camera itself, lighting, angle and presence of reflection spots, the incorporation of additional image processing algorithms might compensate for these factors. It is certainly expected that future colony apps will also distinguish colonies based on their morphology and perform microbiological analysis through comparisons with databases. With the smartphone camera, these apps can make colony counters widely available and mobile (bringing the counter to the plate rather than the plate to counter), as well as save space and equipment cost.

Another equipment displacement would be that of gel documentation systems for taking pictures of protein and agarose gels. For accurate determination of the DNA and protein band sizes in electrophoresis, distance measurements and graph plotting with comparison to the marker standards are necessary. Due to the tediousness of distance measurements, it is a more common practice to estimate the size based on quick comparisons with the marker standards. With advanced image processing algorithms and the smartphone camera, apps (e.g. Gelapp, see Sim et al., 2015) have been developed to make this process simpler and automated, decreasing reliance on human estimations, bulky gel documentation equipment, and doing away with laborious graph plotting. Although limited by the inability to emit UV or blue light necessary for DNA gels, handheld UV/blue light lamps can easily be used to solve this problem. With such apps, every smartphone owner can also own a portable gel documentation system, a boost towards quantitative biology and improved reporting of band sizes. With the smartphone gel analyzers, scientists no longer need to book or ensure the availability of machines for their gel analysis.

Peripheral device dependants (Table 4)

Table 4

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Peripheral device dependants”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

RadHalo

Android

Allows remote acess to Thermo Scientific Radiation detection products for configuration and management

Hybrid (Expt Lab)

Thermo Scientific Radiation Detection products

SpectBT - Spectrophotometer App

Android

Controls a Bluetooth based mobile Spectrophotometer, able to store and export multiple readings on to excel sheets

Native (Expt Lab)

APD Bluetooth based mobile Spectrophotometer

Thermo Scientific Centri-Vue

Android

Connects with Thermo Scientific sorvall LYNX superspeed centrifuge to provide remote excess to the centrifuge functions.

Hybrid (Expt Lab)

Camera; Thermo Scientific Sorvall LYNX superspeed centrifuge

VersaCool Mobile Communication

Android

Connects to VersaCool instruments and allows remote monitoring & control of functions Via the mobile device

Hybrid (Expt Lab)

VersaCool Refrigerated Bath Circulator

Apps such as RadHalo for radiation monitoring (see http://info3.thermoscientific.com/RadHalo?ca=radhalo) and Thermo Scientific Centri-Vue for centrifuges (Thermo Scientific, 2015) allow users to pair their smartphones with peripheral devices via Bluetooth for remote access. Apart from control, results can also be instantaneously viewed on the smartphone. This real-time connection enables close monitoring, minimizing reaction times. Other examples include the SpectBT- Spectrophotometer app that controls a portable Bluetooth-enabled Spectrophotometer. At present, apps in this category are rare due to many limitations. Firstly, they are often limited at times by the range of the connectivity (although some use internet connectivity), thus requiring close proximity of the devices during use. Secondly, the benefits are limited by the automation of the devices connected. Should the equipment itself require many manual steps (e.g. loading samples), off-site control is rendered meaningless. Lastly, these apps typically control only specific devices, requiring many apps to controls various devices. A universal remote controller may in time solve be made once standardized protocols are in place.

With the ever increasing technology where sensors are added into new smartphones all the time, this category of apps may decrease after soon increasing. It is certain that smartphone manufacturers would gradually incorporate popular peripheral sensors to enable direct measurements in the future.

Laboratory calculators (Table 5)

Table 5

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Laboratory calculators”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

An Array of genetic Tools from Gene Link,Inc

iOS

Provides calculators for laboratory protocols

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

BioChem Tools

Android

Provides calculations for laboratory protocols

Native (Expt Lab)

None

CloningBench

Android

Provides calculators to compute laboratory experiments etc. cloning

Native (Expt Lab)

None

Solution Calcutor

Android

Provides calculators to compute volumes etc. concentration

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

Promega

Android

Provides reference information, videos and calculators to compute laboratory experiments

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

Chemical calculations ranging from determining and preparing concentrations of chemical solutions and samples (e.g. ELISA, PCR, etc.) are routine in labs. Apps in this category often do more than just calculate, but also facilitate these processes by providing formulas and references. However, most of them lack to include a history of the previous calculations and the incorporation of video tutorials to guide certain procedures. With good laboratory standard protocols shown in videos, such apps would be a reference point for complex procedures, probably aiding to standardize scientific protocols for process reproducibility.

Protocol assistant apps (Table 6)

Table 6

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Protocol assistant apps”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

Buffers

iOS

Design buffer solutions for pH control

Hybrid (Expt Lab)

None

DNA toolkit

Android

Analyze DNA sequences and display available restriction sites

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Fluorescence Spectraviewer

iOS

Plots and compares the compatibility of fluorophores

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

NEB Tools

iOS

Selects restriction enzymes based on recognition sequences, able to suggest buffer & reaction conditions

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

There are complex processes in biomedical research that would benefit from memory assistance to recall details. Examples of such processes includes enzyme restriction sites and their incubation conditions which not only grow, but frequently require refreshing. To benefit such processes, apps (e.g. DNA2app, see Sim et al., 2016) allow users to analyse a sequence of interest, showing all possible restriction sites.

Database (Table 7)

Table 7

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Database”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

ATG Sequence Search

Android

Enables DNA and Protein sequence queries from National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

Atom 3D

Android

Provide access to the mnemonics database for filtering and editing mnemonics of particular subjects

Native (Comp Lab)

None

Harmonizome

Android

Integrate various databases & online resources

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

iOncology

Android

Provide access to database of enzymatic and cell-based data of several gene families

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

Mentha the interactome browser

Android

Analysis of selected proteins in the context of a network of interactions.

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

RCSB PDB Mobileb

Android & iOS

Provide access to RCSB PDB resources

Hybrid (Reference/learning)

None

SimGene

Android

Provide up to date, cross reference and integrated genome browser information

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

PSICQUIC Client

Android

Provide access to the molecular interaction data repository

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

BioGPS

iOS

Browse gene information

Hybrid (Comp Lab and Reference/Learning)

None

FlyExpressa

iOS

Explore gene expression patterns from Fruit Fly embryogenesis

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

Yeast Genome

iOS

Browse genes and fundamental chromosomal features of Saccharomyces cerevisae

Hybrid (Comp Lab)

None

iSpartan

iOS

Provide atomic and molecular properties, NMR and infra spectra, molecular orbitals and electrostatic potential map Model 3D structure of small molecules and estimate energies for alternate conformers

Hybrid (Comp Lab and Reference/Learning)

None

aQuinn et al. Bioinformatics, 2014 [doi: btu596]

bSudhir et al. Bioinformatics, 28(21), 2012 [doi: bts518]

Apps in this category are the most common. They function to give users the convenience of access to pre-stored databases right on their smartphones. Some facilitate the communication of information to others However, only one of the apps (Atom 3D) we surveyed have the database locally stored in the phone. While this may take up valuable storage space, it allows the app to function without internet access. The feasibility of local storage is naturally determined by the size of the database, however, future apps may thus allow selective syncing of the database as a compromise between weaning off internet dependency and storage space usage.

Others (Table 8)

Table 8

Examples of biomedical apps classified under “Others”

App name

OS

Description

App type

Hardware

ForSight - Mutation Predictor

Android

Generates mutation rules from wild-type and mutant sequences to predict subsequent sequence based on the rule applied

Native (Expt Lab)

None

Mass Spectrometry Peaks

Android

Calculation of chemical formula from exact mass measured in mass spectrometry. Suited for instant identification of metabolites (small molecules) in non-targeted (open) metabolomics approaches

Native (Expt Lab)

None

Expt/Comp Lab = Experimental/Computational lab

Only apps from Google Play Store and Apple App Store are shown. “Expt” and “Comp” lab classifications based on their functions towards experimental lab processes. Classifications of native and hybrid apps are defined according to Salesforce. (see https://developer.salesforce.com/page/Native,_HTML5,_or_Hybrid:_Understanding_Your_Mobile_Application_Development_Options).

There are a few apps that did not fall into the previous categories but were clearly linked to biomedical research. These apps typically require specific keywords and they can range from generating mutations to aiding mass spectrometry peak analysis (see Table 8).

The mobile biomedical lab

The obvious lack of collaborations between app developers, hardware engineers and biomedical researchers is the main obstacle to the smartphone being exploited to mobilize core biomedical processes. The constraint of a small screen currently makes it difficult for complex analysis, but this may be addressed by the overall trend of increasing screen sizes in newer models of smartphones. The changes in mobile phones have come full circle. From going smaller to smaller in the 1990s, smartphone screens are now getting larger. It is foreseeable that the increasing size will be restricted by the market - no one wants to carry a 14 inch smartphone.

For this problem, there are already interesting solutions round the corner. Where there are problems, there is also innovation. One potential solution takes the form of a bracelet to project the smartphone screen onto the arm the user (http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/240580). Projected on other surfaces, the screen size can be enlarged as desired. This technology is particularly exciting as it also addresses the potential problem of contact contamination in a biomedical lab.

Conclusion

The overall potential of smartphones is gradually unlocked by apps and peripheral devices. There are some smartphone based devices that are not found in the app stores, but there is a clear displacement of lab equipment using mobile technology, such as in the areas of microplate reading (Berg et al., 2015; Christodouleas et al. 2015; Fu et al., 2016), live cell imaging (Walzik et al., 2015), microfluidics for cancer detection (Barbosa et al., 2015), food allergen detection (Coskun et al., 2013), and immunochromatgraphic detection of bacteria (Rajendran et al., 2014).Nonetheless, there are areas where no changes are expected; and this is the work of dangerous chemical and pathogens (e.g. Biohazard Class 3 work). With the requirement of specialized safety infrastructure, a significant revolutionary change would have to occur before technology can overcome this.

Regardless of drawbacks, there is much to look forward to. As technology advances, smartphones apps and devices will increase. Researchers should continuously tap on existing technology to heighten research efficiency and accuracy. The advent of the mobile biomedical lab may be just round the corner.

Declarations

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Bioinformatics Institute, Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR)
(2)
p53 Laboratory, Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR)

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Copyright

© The Author(s) 2016