A smartphone app that identifies severe jaundice in newborn babies by scanning their eyes could be a life-saver in areas that lack access to expensive screening devices, suggests a study.
The app, called neoSCB, was developed by clinicians and engineers at University College London and was used to screen for jaundice in over 300 newborn babies in Ghana. An initial pilot study was conducted on 37 newborns at University College London Hospital (UCLH) in 2020.
The team analysed images taken on a smartphone camera to quantify the yellowness of the white part of the eye (sclera) – a sign of neonatal jaundice.
Analysing the yellowness of the eye just by looking is unreliable, and the neoSCB app can give early diagnosis of neonatal jaundice requiring treatment, said researchers in the paper published in the journal Paediatrics.
Of the 336 babies tested by the app, 79 were severely jaundiced newborns, and the app correctly identified 74 of them. This is in line with the accuracy of the most common conventional screening method, a non-invasive device known as a transcutaneous bilirubinometre, which correctly identified 76.
The transcutaneous bilirubinometre works by measuring the yellow pigment under the newborn’s skin to give a measure of jaundice levels. All screening results are then followed up by blood tests to determine the type of treatment required.
“The study shows that the neoSCB app is as good as commercial devices currently recommended to screen for severely jaundiced newborns, but the app only requires a smartphone which costs less than a tenth of the commercial device,” said Dr Terence Leung (UCL Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering) who developed the technology behind the app.
“We hope that, once rolled out widely, our technology can be used to save the lives of newborns in parts of the world that lack access to expensive screening devices,” he added.
Jaundice, where the skin and whites of the eye turn yellow, is common in newborns.
The yellowness is caused by a substance called bilirubin, which in severe cases can enter the brain, leading to death or disabilities such as hearing loss, neurological conditions such as athetoid cerebral palsy and developmental delays.
Every year severe jaundice causes about 114,000 newborn deaths and 178,000 cases of disability worldwide, despite it being a treatable condition.