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Corbis

Health

Is America Ready for Over-the-Counter STD Tests?

A new test is in the pipeline to test for venereal diseases in the comfort of your own home. Lizzie Crocker reports.

We live in an age of self-diagnosis—of waking up with our private parts in distress and furtively, obsessively Googling “irritation on tip of penis” in our office cubicles. It is only then—after being confronted with stomach-churning images of strangers’ infected genitalia and descriptions on WebMD that suggest our discomfort can only mean we have Chlamydia—that we make an appointment to see a medical professional.

But what if we could bypass the embarrassing examination (“Have your testicles been swollen or tender lately?”), and nail-biting four days before lab results come back?

A startup called Boston Microfluidics is poised to help us do just that by developing a cheap, effective, and consumer friendly over-the-counter STD test. The product, KnowNow, would be neatly packaged and easy to use, not unlike pregnancy tests. Instead of urinating on a stick and waiting 60 seconds for the results, KnowNow involves pricking one’s finger with a small lancet, depositing a drop of blood into a plastic syringe, and putting that blood droplet into a device to determine, in roughly five minutes, whether or not you’re “clean.”

KnowNow has yet to get the green light from the feds (its developers expect to run trials by the end of the year), but it wouldn’t be the first FDA-approved STD test. “There are kits out there but they’re too complicated and involve too many steps,” says Brandon Johnson, founder of Boston Microfluidics. “The idea is to take existing testing technology and package it in a way that’s really easy for people to use.”

It seems like so many things could go wrong. Getting tested isn’t that much of a hassle.

Johnson, 31, began raising venture capital to develop a do-it-yourself STD test in 2008. “I started the company because I wanted to be able to test myself at home,” he says. For now, the product will only screen for genital herpes (HSV-2), which has infected an estimated 50 million people in the U.S., 80 percent of whom don’t know they have it, according to the American Sexual Health Association. “The regulatory and technological paths are relatively straightforward [for herpes],” Johnson tells me. But he is confident it won’t be long before KnowNow will is able to detect other STDs—HIV, Hepatitis C, Gonorrhea and Syphilis—and ultimately hopes to develop a product that could diagnose a broader set of health concerns, like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

“You’ll be able to prick your finger and test yourself for 20 different things,” he says. “The technology for that exists; we just have to get people used to home testing.”

Indeed, Johnson acknowledges that a stigma surrounding home testing has been the biggest obstacle in appealing to investors, in part, he says, because those involved in healthcare and diagnostics don’t understand KnowNow’s demographic. “They have no idea how Millennials look for products or purchase things—they’re used to all diagnostics being in a doctor’s office,” he says. “So we had to find investors who had a different skill set and more experience with consumer products.”

As a member of Johnson’s target demographic, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $35 for a test that would, in a fit of paranoia, prevent me from Googling symptoms of various pelvic problems. If KnowNow determined that I did not, in fact, have some dreaded venereal disease, I’d sigh in relief and avoid a trip to the gynecologist so long as I remained symptomless.

Others are more skeptical of the product.

“I don’t trust myself with a lancet, for one, and it seems like so many things could go wrong at so many different points,” says Eliza, 23, a sexually active woman in Johnson’s demographic. “Getting tested isn’t that much of a hassle.”

But Johnson is convinced DIY testing will become increasingly popular as technology advances. As STDs and STIs become more common (a 2013 CDC report says there are 20 million new infections in the U.S. every year), more young people are trying to educate themselves and, in turn, eradicate the STD stigma. To wit: a website called The STD Project, which was started by a woman with an STD and gets roughly 80,000 unique visitors every month. Those behind the project have partnered with national organizations like Planned Parenthood and spoken at colleges across the country about STD acceptance.

Johnson sees an entrepreneurial future in this type of engagement. “If there was a ‘Buy Now’ button on sites like this that directed people to purchase at-home STD tests, I think an overwhelming number of people would click on it," he says.

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