Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Turning Cellphones Into Mobile Microscopes

• October 26, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Researchers across California are working to bring medical microscopes to our cellphones — and vastly improve field medicine.

You can use your cellphone to take pictures, get driving directions, and free imprisoned angry birds. And perhaps soon, analyze microscopic blood samples.

Three separate University of California research teams have each concocted a new technology that converts just about any handset with a decent camera into a mobile microscope. That’s a development that could have a huge impact on medicine in developing countries-allowing health care workers in shantytowns and rural villages far from a hospital to diagnose malaria, HIV, and other diseases on the spot.

All three teams of UC researchers are proceeding from the same insight: Medical labs and trained doctors are scarce in poor countries, but cellphones are practically everywhere. There are more than 5 billion mobile phones in use around the world, according to the International Telecommunications Union, and almost three-quarters of them are in developing nations. “Cellphones weren’t part of our vision originally, but they made our job vastly easier,” says Aydogan Ozcan, a UCLA electrical engineering professor.

Ozcan, a trim 33-year-old with neatly barbered brown hair and olive skin, left his native Turkey in 2000 to study in the U.S. and now runs a research center at the university. In his small sixth-floor office (the size is compensated for by sweeping views of the Getty Center nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains), Ozcan shows me the device he developed to piggyback on all those mobile phones.

It’s called LUCAS—a loose shortening of “Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell Monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging.” It works like this: A square plastic housing, half the size of a matchbox, clips over the phone’s photo aperture. A health care worker puts a sample of blood, saliva, or other material onto a glass slide and slips it into the housing. Battery-powered LEDs attached to the device shine light through the sample. The light penetrates the semi-transparent cells and creates a pattern of “shadows” that are projected onto the phone’s CMOS sensor (the silicon chip that captures an image when you take a picture). Those patterns form a holographic image of each cell. Those images can then be sent over the wireless network to health care facilities where technicians can tell whether they show healthy blood, HIV antibodies, or waterborne parasites. The technicians then send their findings back. The whole gadget fits in the palm of your hand and costs only a few dollars.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

The Nov-Dec 2011
Miller-McCune

Nov-Dec 2011 Miller-McCuneThis article appears in our Nov-Dec 2011 issue under the title “Can You See My Blood Now?” To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
Nov-Dec 2011 magazine page.[/class]

LUCAS has so many potential applications that it has garnered a fistful of awards, and funding, from sources ranging from the Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon is interested in using the technology for emergency battlefield medicine. Ozcan’s group is also working on adapting the technology to detect impurities in water, and even for fertility testing on semen samples.

He’s most excited, however, about using LUCAS to fight malaria. “Malaria kills millions of people every year,” says Ozcan. “We need diagnostic tools that can be deployed on a mass scale.”

Daniel Fletcher, a 39-year-old Texan with an Einsteinian corona of auburn hair who is a bioengineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, had the same thought a few years ago. He gave the undergraduates in his optics class a project: imagine they were in a distant part of Africa, suddenly sick, and in need of a blood test. That project became the seed from which Fletcher’s mobile microscope has grown.

Dubbed Cellscope, it is, essentially, a radically miniaturized set of regular microscope lenses. The lenses, about the size of a tape dispenser, clamp over the phone’s camera, and hold regular microscope slides. Users focus on the cells in the sample, as with a regular microscope, and snap a picture, which can then be transmitted by email or text message. “We’re just marrying the cellphone to centuries-old technology,” says Fletcher.

[youtube]a8kx5n4vOr4[/youtube]

When Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu, an associate professor of pathology at the University of California, Davis, read about Fletcher’s device in an academic journal a couple of years ago, his first thought was, “Wow.” His second was, “We could make it simpler, and cheaper.”

Wachsmann-Hogiu and his colleagues rolled out their prototype early this year. Where Ozcan’s devices use no lenses and Fletcher’s uses small ones, Wachsmann-Hogiu’s inhabits a sort of middle ground: it uses a single tiny lens. The whole apparatus consists of a round glass lens a little bigger than a pinhead, affixed over a cellphone camera’s aperture with a rubber ring and tape. Software running inside the phone corrects distortions caused by the spherical lens. Cost: $10 to $30 with glass lenses, but around $1 with plastic.

Each of these micro-microscopes has strengths and weaknesses. Wachsmann-Hogiu’s is the most portable, and the cheapest, but has the lowest resolution. It can “only” see objects as small as 1.5 microns; that’s good enough to spot a blood disorder like anemia, but not a virus like malaria. Ozcan’s and Fletcher’s have greater resolution, enabling them to see a greater variety of cells. Ozcan’s LUCAS, however, has the widest field of view. Conventional microscopes can only look at one tiny area of each blood sample at a time. Ozcan’s system can capture images of all the cells in a much larger swath of a sample, potentially speeding the process of diagnosis. On the other hand, it can only see samples on a slide. The other two can be held up to a patient’s skin or ear to look for infections.

All three devices, however, involve transmitting highly personal medical data over cell networks. That raises obvious privacy concerns; hackers could intercept that data. “It’s a problem for the whole field of telemedicine,” acknowledges Ozcan. The images LUCAS captures will be encrypted, he says, but for the most part, he doesn’t believe there’s much of a threat from data thieves wanting to steal medical information in the rural backwaters where he expects the technology to be used. Both his and Fletcher’s team are also working on software that would enable a patient to be diagnosed right on the handsets, in the field.

The biggest question for these technologies, though, is the same one facing all promising but untried products: Will they actually work in the real world?

“These devices can solve the problem of how to get an image of a blood sample in front of a trained professional,” says Dr. Harry Greenspun, a telemedicine expert at the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. “But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. You also need trained people, equipment to prepare the samples, a reliable wireless network, someone to review the image, and a way to make sure the patients are correctly identified at each end. A lot of new technologies solve one issue, but it’s much harder to incorporate them into the entire health care system.”

Fletcher and Ozcan say their teams have had encouraging results from field tests in Africa and South America. Both are aiming to bring commercial products to market within the next few years. (Wachsmann-Hogiu eventually hopes to do the same, but he’s still in the prototype stage.) The technologies could be used in rich countries, too. Cancer patients, for instance, could skip weekly trips to the hospital to have their blood checked by sending an image instead. That makes Ozcan and Fletcher competitors for grants and venture capital funding. In fact, they’ve both received funding from some of the same sources, including, in 2009, tying for an award from the Vodafone Americas Foundation.

Fletcher says he’s glad to have company. “It won’t be easy to get this technology adopted,” he says. “The issue of diagnosing diseases in developing countries needs as much attention as it can get. The more, the merrier.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

More From Vince Beiser

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.