Rethinking Healthcare

Smartphone app displays microscopic view of malaria

Smartphone app displays microscopic view of malaria

Posting in Design

By magnifying and analyzing a drop of blood, a smartphone equipped with an inexpensive microscopy lens and diagnostic software can help detect malaria on the spot.

Malaria still kills nearly 1 million people a year, and most of those are children under 5. So a team of students across the nation created a smartphone app that could help lower those numbers by providing a microscopic view of the sample in the field.

Currently, malaria is detected using ‘rapid diagnostic test,’ a technique involving cotton swabs and solutions that change color. Unfortunately, false positives occur about 60% of the time. Since it’s better to be safe, billions in medicines end up wasted on healthy individuals.

So 4 grad students – Team Lifelens – went looking for a more accurate method that would reduce the costs of the disease.

They developed a system with a “point-of-care smartphone application.”

  • It has a microscopy lens attached to the camera on the back of a Samsung Focus running Windows Phone 7.
  • It also has software (built in Visual Studio using Microsoft Silverlight with computer vision algorithms written in C#) that can visualize blood samples at a cellular level.

After smearing a drop of blood from a small finger prick on the microscope lens, the app magnifies and analyzes the sample – taking a photo of it, detecting malarial parasites and ruptured blood cells, conducting blood cell counts for anemia, and quantifying how infected the sample is.

"It actually draws a red box around the clusters of malaria, and it actually notifies you how many it found," says team member Tristan Gibeau at University of Central Florida in Orlando.

According to Gibeau, the app takes the currently available microscopic lenses for smartphones to another level – enabling doctors and nurses working in rural villages lacking internet access to make diagnoses without having to upload data for processing elsewhere.

And once data stored in phoned are uploaded, Bing maps can be used to spot disease trends.

The design took home second place at the Imagine Cup 2011 US Finals, a competition sponsored by Microsoft to “imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” The scientific basis of the project was formulated by team member Wilson To at the University of California, Davis, who won last year’s national finals.

The team is in the final round of funding talks with 2 venture groups to secure early-stage funding to conduct extensive in-lab testing and on-field pilot studies.

Images: Lifelens

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure