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UC Berkeley team turns cell phones into microscopes

May 24, 2010 2:38:18 PM PDT
There is little argument that the new generation of cell phones is revolutionizing the way people communicate, but could they also save lives? A research team at UC Berkeley believes they can by turning them into high-powered microscopes.

Spotting deadly diseases with a cell phone? It turns out there is an app for that.

"So, this is actually the first cellscope prototype we came up with," Amy Sheng at the University of California said during a demo, "And, so it's a combination cell phone and a microscope."

Sheng peered at a blood sample from a leukemia patient and a moment later she captured an image of the cancerous cells, the same way one might snap a photo of friends at a party.

"You use the camera on the cell phone to take the image and then you transfer it anywhere in the world for review and diagnosis," she said.

Over the last year, researchers in the Fletcher Lab at the University of California have worked to miniaturize the kind of microscopes that typically take up entire rooms. Their solution began with a marriage of camera-equipped cell phones to homemade optical housings used to magnify images of specimens on a slide.

"We've made this really inexpensive low-cost focus mechanism just using electrical conduit from the hardware store," Sheng explained.

Engineering professor Dan Fletcher, who heads the project, believes the devices have the potential to stop the outbreak of disease like malaria and tuberculosis.

"With a cell phone, you have ability to ID where you are," he said. "So, that can give you information about your location, where you diagnosed a particular sample. Number two, is that you've got the ability to transmit that data to experts outside the region."

The latest versions of what has become known as the "cellscope" have grown far more powerful. Rather than just adding a magnifying lens to a typical cell phone, the team has developed a way to capture sophisticated fluorescent images.

The new prototype uses LED's that light up the fluorescent dye used to mark diseases inside cells. For instance, it can spot bacteria that causes tuberculosis, which shows up as fluorescent strands. Coupled with a small laptop, it is designed to fit in a backpack.

The team has also written special applications, allowing users to catalogue and compare samples to help identify them in the field.

"That allows for an individual who's minimally trained but knows how to load a sample and go through software, could identify and give an initial idea of whether an individual has a disease or not. That can all be done outside of a lab and that's our goal," Fletcher said.

The team plans to test their devices in Uganda this fall and continue field work with them in India after that.


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