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Emory University researchers have developed a cross-platform smartphone app which can test anybody for anemia with just one photo of their fingernails.

Anemia is the most common blood disorder, which affects nearly 2 million people all around the world. It is caused by the lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body.

Doctors typically detect anemia through a blood test called Complete Blood Count (CBC). But now, a new mobile phone app can detect this blood disorder just by analyzing a photo of a person’s fingernails.

In a study published on Tuesday in Nature Communications, the team of researchers from Emory University explained how they trained an algorithm to analyze the colour of a person’s fingernail beds in a smartphone photo to determine the level of hemoglobin in their blood.

The authors noted in their paper published in the science journal, Nature Communications, “Here, we leverage this observation that pallor is associated with anemia to develop a method that quantitatively analyzes pallor in patient-sourced photos using image analysis algorithms to enable a noninvasive, accurate quantitative smartphone app for detecting anemia.”

The app works on the basis of an algorithm created by Wilbur Lam and his team at Emory University and detects anemia by assessing the concentration of hemoglobin from the colour of people’s fingernail beds, using photos taken on a smartphone.

The fingernail colour is a good indicator of the blood’s hemoglobin levels because our nails don’t contain any dark pigment-producing cells that would mask the telling hue.

Once the user takes the image of fingernails using the app, it uses the image metadata automatically obtained from the smartphone camera and normalizes for the background lighting conditions to accurately detect the actual colour of the fingernail bed. The paper claims that this is a technique missed in all previous non-invasive methods to detect anemia.

A four-week study conducted with the app involving 337 people with different blood conditions, including 72 healthy control subjects revealed that the app outperformed physicians assessing hemoglobin levels from a physical exam.

“All other ‘point-of-care’ anemia detection tools require external equipment, and represent trade-offs between invasiveness, cost, and accuracy,” researcher Wilbur Lam said in a press release.

He further said, “This is a standalone app whose accuracy is on par with currently available point-of-care tests without the need to draw blood.”

The researchers expect the app to be available to the public as soon as spring 2019. If that happens, detecting anemia will be as easy as snapping a photo.

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