Right now, mobile devices are among the fastest evolving technologies in the world. Today’s smartphones are not just phones. They are computers, cameras, shopping carts and virtual assistants. They provide users with a direct line to friends and family in the contact list, and allow quick access to the ever-growing stores of information floating around in the internet — anytime, anywhere.
In the near future, your mobile phone might even save you a trip to the doctor.
At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), engineers are building mobile technologies that may one day become as important to personal health as regular physical examinations.
Aydogan Ozcan, an Associate Professor at UCLA, leads a team that has developed a small device that transforms ordinary mobile phones into microscopes. The technology is called LUCAS (Ultra-wide-field Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging), and Dr.Ozcan hopes it will one day permit people living in the far-flung areas of the developing world to check water supplies for contamination, diagnose diseases, or even monitor the condition of HIV patients with the help of doctors in laboratories hundreds of miles away.
“Very few of the technologies we play within the advanced world can actually be applied in developing parts of the world,” Dr. Ozcan told National Geographic in an interview not long ago. To illustrate the potential uses of his application, he refers to the sophisticated $100,000 blood count analyzers found in the laboratories of developed nations, which he says has limited use in remote areas. “You can’t even assume there will be consistent electricity in rural clinics or villages,” he said.
Dr. Ozcan’s invention tackles the problem of limited power and the need for portability by relying on mobile phones already in the hands of billions of people in the developing world. Last year, the World Bank made public a report indicating that three out of every four people throughout the planet have easier access to mobile phones than bank accounts, electricity or even clean water.
Big problem, pocket-sized solution
Working from a lab at the UCLA campus, Dr. Ozcan’s team has devised a set of tools that can replace most of the equipment used in advanced medical laboratories. LUCAS is an easy-to-use, pocket-sized microscope that weighs 50 grams, uses off-the-shelf parts, and can be sold for as little as $50, according to an article that appears on the UCLA website. The device can be attached to a mobile phone’s camera. Blood and saliva samples are loaded onto chips that slide into the side of the microscope.
A complete LUCAS kit includes software that instantly counts and identifies red and white blood cells and micro-particles — a time-consuming process usually performed by trained technicians. The resulting image can be sent through regular phone services to hospitals and clinics in urban centers where professional health workers and physicians can analyze them.
“There is a huge need for these devices,” Dr. Ozcan said in a press statement recently. “Resource poor countries demand compact, cost effective and light-weight devices to replace bulky equipment common in our labs and hospitals. These devices bring the diagnostic, testing and microanalysis capabilities of larger machines to your cellphone.”
By building on the ubiquity of mobile phones, Dr. Ozcan believes LUCAS can offer people living in isolated corners of the developing world wider — and more affordable — access to cutting edge medical technologies and better healthcare services. “A cell phone has almost the computing power of a super computer of the early 1990s,” he says. “And with over six billion cell phone subscribers in the world, there is a massive cost reduction to owning a cellphone.”