Before we get to the story about the incredible cell phone application, let me introduce our newest contributor and author of this blog post, Thomas Burnett. That’s Tom pictured on the left, doing a mighty fine stunt known as the Liberty, back when he was a cheerleader at Rice University. After studying for his PhD in the history of science at the University of California, Berkeley, he went on to work at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Take it away, Tom!
There’s an app for that! Cell phones can do almost everything, right? What if you could use your cell phone to tell whether or not you are sick? This may sound like science fiction fantasy, but its true! Scientists working with professor Dan Fletcher at UC-Berkeley have developed a cell phone attachment that functions like a microscope, enabling for quick diagnosis of disease. Additionally, it’s portable, allowing you to use your “CellScope” anywhere in the world that has cell phone reception.
This innovation has profound implications for global health. Microscopy is a critical tool for modern medicine, but due to costs of equipment and training, it is unavailable in many rural and developing areas. Unfortunately, these are the very places where diseases such as tuberculosis, sickle cell disease, and malaria ravage local populations.
The CellScope is simple to operate. It attaches to an ordinary camera phone and allows you to take a digital picture of the microscopic image that you see. A health care worker can take a small fluid sample from a patient, prepare it on a slide, and snap a photo. You only need a few hours of training to be able to do this yourself! Determining whether the photographic image indicates infection still requires someone with extensive medical training, but since the CellScope can send the image anywhere in the world, help is only a phone call away.
This technology is suitable for diagnosing some extremely prevalent but treatable diseases: malaria, sickle cell disease, and tuberculosis. To detect malaria, you use the CellScope to search a blood sample for the microscopic parasites carried by mosquitoes. Knowing exactly who is infected helps health workers treat only those who need it, lowering the likelihood of drug-resistant strains of malaria emerging.
To detect sickle cell disease, you use the CellScope to search for sickled red blood cells. Detection early in a child’s life will help decrease complications from the disease. Theoretically, this technology could screen all newborns in developing countries, enabling dramatic improvement in the health of these populations.
Using the CellScope to diagnosis tuberculosis is extremely practical. Since cell phones can employ simple image processing software to label and count tuberculosis bacteria in a captured image, it would relieve healthcare workers of the time-consuming and error-prone task of counting by eye. Another advantage of this technology is that TB patients have to be monitored over a 6-9 month period, making clinical visits inconvenient and expensive. Since no one likes sitting in doctors’ offices, they could simply send their images to the clinic by phone!
The use of cell phones in the practice of medicine has a bright future. Though many diagnostic tools are missing in developing countries, cell phones are nearly ubiquitous. Besides taking pictures, they can also process digital images, store medical records, and communicate with medical personnel throughout the world. They can also help to keep track of the location out disease outbreak by using cell phone position or GPS location.
Moreover, the CellScope is not just a technology of the future, but a practical reality. We can adopt it in current public health efforts because it uses internationally accepted standards for disease screening. The Berkeley CellScope group has already conducted tests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Uganda. This summer, they plan additional field testing in Uganda and also in India.
While the CellScope is not available for purchase in your local wireless store, we can expect that variations will be developed for amateur scientists and students conducting science projects, botanical studies, and other exciting investigations of the natural world. As soon as these models emerge, you’ll hear about them here at Science Cheerleader and over at our sister site ScienceForCitizens.net!