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Remote Microscopy

A modular microscope attachment for cell phones could improve the quality of telemedicine.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a modular, high-magnification microscope attachment for cell phones. The device will enable health workers in remote, rural areas to take high-resolution images of a patient’s blood cells using a cell-phone camera, and then transmit the photos to experts at medical centers.

Mobile microscopy: A cell phone incorporating a microscope (top) developed at the University of California, Berkeley, can capture and transmit pictures such as this 23x-magnification image of the freshwater crustacean Cyclops (bottom). Researchers hope that the device will allow patients in remote areas to send images of red blood cells and other diagnostic information to medical specialists.

The researchers hope that the innovation will help patients with blood disorders who live far from medical specialists get more accurately diagnosed and treated. “I wanted to make optical design relevant to today,” says Daniel Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering at Berkeley. Fletcher’s students found it relatively easy to integrate a simple arrangement of lenses with the cell-phone camera and transmit magnified images to a laptop using a Bluetooth attachment to the phone. The work prompted Fletcher to file a patent through the university and try to make a practical microscope. The researchers say that the cameras in late-model phones are capable of capturing all the details that a doctor would need to identify malaria parasites and cancer cells.

“The challenge was to make a low-cost, durable device with a long battery life,” says David Breslauer, a graduate student in Fletcher’s lab. “As engineers, we initially wanted to make a whiz-bang gadget to take pictures of both skin and blood. But people in the field told us, ‘Once it gets too complicated, no one is going to want to use it. Make something simple that just does the task.’”

The total cost of the first prototype, built from off-the-shelf components, was $75. The current version provides its own sample illumination from cheap, low-power LEDs. The device comes in two versions: with a magnification of about 5 times, for taking images of moles and rashes, and with a magnification of about 60 times, for capturing the details of blood cells and parasites. The higher-magnification model–the larger of the two–is roughly the size and shape of a roll of quarters. Both scopes attach to the phone with a modified belt clip.

“Microscopy is still considered the gold standard” for malaria diagnosis, says Katherine Herz, a medical doctor and a fellow in health policy at Stanford University. “If microscopy could be done with portable equipment … [it] might be adopted far more widely and prove extremely useful.”

Fletcher plans to test the microscope cell phone in Uganda this summer. Initially, his lab will make prototypes, but eventually, it plans to hand off the design to a manufacturer. The Blum Center for Developing Economies at Berkeley, which provided initial funding, will help test the device in Kampala. The scheme is to train local personnel and provide them with the necessary equipment to take pictures of patients’ blood on special slides, and then phone in the images to specialists who can identify and count malaria parasites.

The researchers also hope to collaborate with a telemedicine program at the University of California, Davis, that serves rural California. Leukemia patients in remote areas could use the microscope cell phone to transmit images for white blood cell counts.

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