Hot Science Cool Talks describes future of self-diagnosis

Miles Hutson

When you wake up with a stuffy nose, according to UT biochemistry professor Andrew Ellington, you should be able to test yourself for the flu. 

In the Environmental Science Institute’s 85th Hot Science – Cool Talks lecture, Ellington addressed UT students, the Austin community and about 40 high school students from the Manor Independent School District

Ellington, who has been working in his lab and with colleagues on self-diagnostic tests, said in the past, women would find out whether or not they were pregnant only by going to a doctor’s office. There, Ellington said, they took a urine sample and injected it into a rabbit, using the rabbit’s biological response to determine if the woman was pregnant.

However, a rabbit-free method was eventually discovered — the modern-day pregnancy test. The same hormone that caused the rabbit’s ovaries to change if the woman was pregnant could be detected through the new chemical test.

“If we can detect pregnancy, why is it that we can’t detect lots of other things?” Ellington said. 

Ellington said in a world of scarce resources, expanding the use of tests for biochemical substances could help people in both First and Third World countries.

In the First World, Ellington said, simple self-diagnostic tests could take pressure off doctors by helping people determine whether or not they have a cold or are in the early stages of the flu.

“We will continue on a path to curing our own selves because, really, economically we are out of other paths,” Ellington said.

Ellington envisions a future in which normal people keep diagnostic kits in their homes. In the Third World, Ellington said, the impact of these tests could be even more dramatic and immediate. Mass-produced tests could be about five cents, allowing resource-poor nations to test for common and problematic diseases.

“You can already manufacture these … You can print them on paper,” Ellington said. “You could imagine doing this at scale.”

Ellington said the tests could have other uses as well, because they can detect a variety of substances. 

Trey Carrico, an Austin entrepreneur who attended the talk, said this flexibility is what most excites him, because he and others could find substances including MSG in manufactured foods.

“I think I, myself, would buy free glutamate testing,” Carrico said. “I’d like to expose their free glutamate ranges.”

Ellington said consumers and producers in the current medical system should be asking why they don’t have the technology to empower patients in their own diagnoses.

“If it’s a good enough thing to do and we’re not doing it, why is that?” Ellington said. “I want to get trials running where we see what the possibilities are.”