Smartphone microscope can diagnose malaria

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The add-on device makes use of a smartphone's camera features.
The add-on device makes use of a smartphone's camera features.

New technology that transforms a cellphone into a mobile polarised microscope can diagnose malaria in a Rwandan village with the same level of accuracy as a lab in a major city, according to Texas A&M University biomedical engineers developing the device.

"The way they diagnose malaria now is with a microscope, but it is with a big bench-top microscope that is relatively complicated to use, takes a trained technician, and you have to have the facility for that scope in a centralised lab somewhere. So basically what we are taking is that gold standard and making it into a portable device," said Gerard Cote, professor of Biomedical Engineering.

The add-on device, known as a mobile-optical-polarisation imaging device, makes use of a smartphone's camera features to produce high-resolution images of objects 10 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

The device images a blood sample using polarised light that can detect Hemozoin crystals, a malaria parasite by-product which appears as very bright dots in the image and is an accurate indicator of infection.

According to the scientists, once the device is attached to the phone, the diagnosis takes just minutes using an app.

"An application software would take that image and automatically count the number of red blood cells, count the number of parasites over different fields of view. And then by doing that you can determine if they have malaria or not," Cote said.

In 2015, there have been around 214 million cases of malaria globally so far, approximately 438 000 of which were fatal. Ninety percent of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organisation.

It's these stark statistics which inspired the team to keep the device as affordable as possible, to ensure it could be used where it is needed most. Smartphones are widely available in Africa and the team says the cost of the add-on optics will be less than $50 (USD) with the disposable blood sampling cartridges priced at less than a dollar.

The team plans to test the cellphone microscope next year in Rwanda.

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