Cellphones Become Smart Tools for the Developing World

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LOS ANGELES — Every day, millions of cellphone users take photos of their friends, families, pets—even themselves. Soon those cellphone self portraits may include images of their own blood cells, made possible through a microscope attachment on their mobile device.

Cellphones use is becoming increasingly widespread in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Although access to cellphones has become easier, access to medical care remains elusive in many of these poor, remote areas.

Enter the newest cellphone upgrade: The Cellophone Microscope. This device uses a small tube that attaches to the cell phone to create a microscope, which uses the phone’s camera for imaging. The Cellophone can capture microbes and bacteria in fluid samples, which could prove to be a revolutionary concept for the developing world where high-powered microscopes are unavailable.

Cellophone is being developed by a team of researchers led by Professor Aydogan Ozcan of the electrical engineering department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Ozcan’s telemedicine work focuses on replacing expensive lab technology with accessible and economical health solutions. The Cellophone is a prime example: the device costs about $10 and uses computer code, instead of pricey lenses, to create the microscope function.

Cellophone can take images of blood, urine, and saliva samples with the simple technology of a cell phone. The Cellophone works by sliding the fluid sample into  the device, just like a memory stick. Using the phone’s camera, the  image of the cells is captured and processed with computer code, instead of processing an image through a series of lenses like traditional microscopes. Professor. Ozcan says the micro-sized shadows of bacteria show a distinct texture that allow for identification and mapping of an image by using his “reconstruction algorithms” for processing. With special lighting and the phone’s camera, these images are effectively captured and sent via multimedia file to a laptop for processing, with results returned via text file. In the future, Professor Ozcan says these images will be processed on site if smartphone technology power increases.

Indeed, smartphone technology is grabbing headlines in other health news, like when a computer scientist revealed he wrote an application for the iPhone that acts as a stethoscope. Others, like Professor Ramesh Raskar of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Labs, are targeting the high-quality screens of cell phones for telemedicine work. Professor Raskar’s device is called the Near Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment (Netra), which gives the user a personalized eye prescription. Netra, like Cellophone, is a clip-on device, but instead of imaging fluid samples, it diagnoses eye conditions.

Netra’s clip-on lens attaches to the front of the cellphone display, and when users look through, they should see two lines, one red, one green, on the screen. If the two colored lines match up, the user’s vision is in fine condition, but if not, the user taps the phone cursor buttons until they align. This test can be repeated with different configurations to determine how a user’s eyes focus and if they need corrective eyewear.

Professor Raskar says this technology test could be an ideal solution for developing countries because it doesn’t require the user to carry a set of trial lenses and reading charts.

Professors Raskar and Ozcan both believe cellphone technology offers a new way to experience healthcare, and that future software applications and mobile development will continue to assist in global health challenges.

“The cell phone holds huge promise,” said Professor Ozcan. “It has become like a Swiss-army knife.”

Georganne Hassell

Sources: BBC, Vodaphone Wireless, UCLA

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