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A mobile microscope without lenses

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Aydogan Ozcan wants to turn your cellphone into a microscope. The UCLA professor sees a great opportunity to leverage the infrastruture that’s brought over 4 billion mobile phones around the world, and deep into the developing world, to diagnose malaria or tuberculosis. If you could diagnose these sorts of diseases in very rural areas, or test food and water for contamination, you could make massive strides in public health.

We’ve got great lab technology to count cells – flow cytometry works really well and has high accuracy. But it doesn’t work well in resource poor settings – aside from the costs of equipment, the running costs are high. We could use microscopes instead to count cells, but they’re still bulky and hard to miniaturize.

Ozcan tells us that “optical components aren’t really necessary for what we’re doing.” When we miniaturize microscopes, we can do so without using lenses or other bulky components. In fact, we could build something small enough that it would act as a microimager. This, in turned, could be attached to a mobile phone and transmit the data from the microimager to doctors and public health authorities.

The technology Ozcan and his team have developed is called LUCAS: Lens-free Ultra wide field of view Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging. The technology is based on the realization that the most expensive part of a camera or microscope is a lens. If you can get rid of that entirely, it saves money and weight. According to Ozcan, you don’t need a lens to see cell shadows. And these shadows “contain a texture that serves as the fingerprint of a cell”, a hologram. We can study the deformations of those holograms and reconstruct a microscopic image of the cell from the shadow. Even if the shadows overlap, we can actually get the full image of cells from extensively overlapping holograms.

This would let us do some extraordinary things. We can diagnose sicle-cell anemia cia holograms, and count cell signatures based on their texture. This means that we can get a complete blood count and count the differences between white blood cell types. The technology also lets usdetect bacteria like E. Coli in water, potentially avoiding contamination. In the long run, we could use this technology to monitor the health of HIV+ patients, watching their T-cell counts remotely if people had microimager-enabled phones.

The product is in the early stages – they’ve demonstrated feasibility in the lab and designed a small number of prototypes for field testing. But it’s possible we might see these products in the field in the near future, radically changing what’s possible in diagnosis in rural areas.

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