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New in telemedicine: The cell phone microscope

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UCLA engineers are touting a lens-free cell phone microscope as a tool to improve health care from Africa to the United States.

UCLA engineers are touting a lens-free cell phone microscope -- a telemedicine innovation lauded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Geographic and the National Science Foundation -- as a tool to improve health care from Africa to the United States.

The device was recently on the cover of the journal Lab on a Chip. I spoke about the cell phone microscope with Aydogan Ozcan, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and a researcher at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute.

How does the cell phone microscope work?

This microscope is an entirely digital microscope, which creates images from the object's shadows. Rather than seeing the magnified image of the cell through a bunch of lenses, we are essentially creating it from its shadow. Cell shadows are interesting because they are extremely rich. If you walk outside on a sunny day for instance, you would see your shadow on the street. That shadow is nothing very interesting. It doesn't contain any features, texture. But if you look at the shadow of a cell, it's like the fingerprint of the cell. Cells are semi-transparent in light. Light penetrates the cell, it gets scattered and then creates a special unique shadow for each cell type. We can understand the cell type or we can reconstruct its image as if we were looking at it through a regular microscope.

Talk about how you developed this technology.

This is a long research project which has been developed by my group for the last three years or so. We always had an interest in creating lens-free microscopes. Digital sensors that you would normally find in your cell phone, these three, five, eight mega-pixel sensors, were never actually available during the major efforts of microscopy. It was much earlier, centuries earlier than the digital revolution. This tells you that the design of the microscope is sub-optimum as we see it today. They didn't consider computers as part of the design process. That was my starting point. I was 100 percent convinced that there were a lot of things we could do by bringing digital technologies and smart algorithms to create new microscopes. They should be created because of the digital revolution that we've been experiencing over the last decade is phenomenal. You can really achieve an enormous amount of cost reduction while still achieving the same performance matrix.

Where do you envision these cell phone microscopes being used?

For an advanced country like the United States, this device could be useful in small clinics that maybe see a few dozen patients everyday. Instead of going to a major hospital for your blood test and coming back again one or two days after, you can go to these small scale offices and potentially within an hour be out with everything. That's where I think the insurance costs will go down.

At the same time, global health is its major application domain because cell phones are everywhere. We have more than four billion cell phone subscribers. Eighty percent of the people on Earth today are covered by a telecommunication network. In Africa, there's little infrastructure but there's a telecommunication network readily available and working. We want to utilize the communication infrastructure to create [clinics] that could run on these devices without adding any significant cost. You could utilize this to diagnose infectious diseases. You could start to combat these global health challenges.

What's the next step for this device?

We're pushing in several different directions. One aspect is to push these microscopes beyond microscopy to diagnose disease. In other words, you have a microscope which is a tool, but then you need trained medical personnel that can read that microscope slide and make a diagnosis. We'd like to take our microscopes to the level where they can be an entirely self-sufficient disease diagnosis tool. In Africa, trained personnel are missing. If you were able to donate thousands of these microscopes there, it wouldn't solve the global challenge we're having with malaria. Unfortunately, health care providers are not trained well and they can't accurately read those malaria slides. We might train our algorithms to the level that the medical provider can look at those slides and make a diagnostic decision. We're interested in doing this for other diseases.

We are now looking at other medical gadgets and we're trying to make them entirely digital. We're looking at what other gadgets are very important today and we're trying to make new designs that are going to work around the cell phone. Microscopy is great, but it's not everything.

Image, top: Cell phone microscope

Image, bottom: Aydogan Ozcan

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure