Campus Community / Science / Technology and Health

Computer Science Collaboration Creates Life-Saving App

Written by Allison Nitch

January 7, 2021

Student holds up smartphone with app and test strip on screen.

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

Graduate student Fang (Jenny) Yuan, '21, displays the BiliPic test strip and smartphone app.

Computer Science faculty, students and recent alumni collaborate with start-up Bilimetrix-USA, LLC in building a software-based point of care and patent-pending app to support solutions for early detection and treatment of severe infant jaundice in low-resource countries.

Bilimetrix-USA states 50 percent of newborns develop jaundice, a yellowing of the skin due to a build-up of the chemical bilirubin in their blood during the first week of life. While this is normal, severe and untreated cases can cause kernicterus, a type of brain damage preventable with early diagnosis and light therapy. Unfortunately, families in developing countries face barriers to timely and affordable treatment. A major challenge is the inability of community clinics to measure plasma bilirubin levels needed to assess risk for kernicterus and the need for treatment.

Dr. Richard Wennberg, neonatal medicine specialist and founder of Bilimetrix-USA, developed the BiliPic, a low-cost system to measure bilirubin in plasma using a tiny drop of blood applied to a cell/plasma separator attached to a lateral flow test strip. But when he needed a smartphone app to analyze the intensity of the yellow color on the test strip, he turned to Seattle University.

In 2017, he was referred to the Seattle U Project Center by a friend to “discuss his ideas to dramatically reduce testing cost and increase accessibility to information” about jaundice screening and prevention, explains Michael Koenig, a lecturer in computer science, project developer and faculty advisor.

In partnership with the Stop Kernicterus in Northern Nigeria consortium, Dr. Wennberg’s and Seattle U teams’ collaborative efforts have established a service known as SKi (Stop Kernicterus International).

A Prospering Partnership

Seattle U’s initial venture with Dr. Wennberg involved building a prototype to capture readings and calculate results as a senior capstone project. Since then, volunteer students in the Computer Science program have contributed to completing the mobile application, building web services for content management, reporting, security and data hierarchy.

Because the project scope is beyond what can be covered in classes, Koenig explains, “... It gives students the opportunity to learn about working as a team on a large codebase, a complex system that combines mobile development, image processing, education training material and cloud services.”

“…Our entire team quickly established a rapport. … We were able to openly bounce ideas and questions off each other,” says Audrey Kan, ’20, who worked on the website and mobile app. “This provided a great environment where I was able to learn and dive into different types of tasks, from project managing, writing unit tests, developing mobile code and writing design documents.”

Students built the mobile application for Android smartphones to measure plasma bilirubin, “and a companion cloud service that allows the sharing of information for researchers around the world,” notes Koenig.

Getting the app to work completely offline is currently in progress, which will be especially beneficial in areas where cellular service is unavailable or too costly, says Kan.

How It Works

As the site describes, app users take a photo of a test strip against a standard reference card with their phone. The app simultaneously transmits results to a secure cloud platform where it’s accessed by referral hospitals and for population research.

Since the project is deployed live to researchers in Africa, Seattle U’s teams “also learn about DevOps, keeping live systems running with security and performance, along with how to ensure quality through test automation and good QA (quality assurance) processes,” says Koenig.

“The partnership of Bilimetrix-USA and Seattle University has inspired colleagues in Egypt and Nigeria to implement the low-cost system SU has developed in their regions,” says Dr. Wennberg.

Michelle Simoni, ’20, built many of the mobile application features. “…Bilimetrix is a company that wants to help the world and I’m proud to have taken part,” she says. The project’s mission allowed her “to help a greater cause and a lot of parents … and has given me extensive experience to prepare me for the work force.”

Computer Science grad student and faculty member

Above: Fang (Jenny) Yuan and Michael Koenig

Patent Pending

Fang (Jenny) Yuan, ’21 MSMC, first began working on the SKi website in a software engineering class. In 2019, she volunteered to work on the BiliPic app.

By October 2020, Yuan officially received patent pending for her contributions, which will be issued in final form in approximately five years. Next steps include offering the app on iPhones, improving algorithm speed and ensuring it operates concurrently with the SKi website.

“I am really proud that a patent based on a student’s work has been filed,” says Koenig, noting the amazing opportunity of “being able to graduate not only with a degree, but with real-world experience on a live project and a technology patent to your name.”

The patent application was generously supported by a Seattle U alum.

Yuan wanted to work on the app for Bilimetrix-USA because, “I believed in this project and the impact it would make. Professor Koenig has supported this project since day one,” she explains. “He is the driving force … and is always willing to answer questions and teach students. Also, we would not have this patent if not for Seattle U’s support.”

Greater Together

Laura Larson, ’21 MSCS, has been involved with the project from the start. “The growth I’ve experienced throughout my time at Seattle U getting my computer science degree is definitely reflected in the work I am currently doing on this project. ... It’s been great to partner with a client who is driven to make the world a better place.”

Approximately 20 computer science students have contributed to the project since 2017, along with Albers students helping with nonprofit business plan case studies and graphic design students from the College of Arts and Sciences creating logos, UX designs and assets for the Bilimetrix-USA/SKI website.

With the project concluding in one year, Dr. Wennberg says, “… Seattle U has made a major contribution to a holistic system that provides hope for eliminating kernicterus in any country that adopts it. I hope students and faculty were as inspired contributing to a solution of a major health problem as I was inspired working with so many very talented students from many disciplines.”