Health Technology Update: Innovating on the Fly… watch out MacGyver!
Written by: Aimee Zellers
Using only an iPhone, a piece of glass, double-sided tape, and a flashlight, scientists in Africa have concocted a microscope that is precise enough to detect intestinal worms with approximately 70% accuracy. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene first published the finding. Scientists examined the stool samples of nearly 200 children in Pemba Island, Tanzania. Intestinal worms are a very serious health problem in Tanzania, especially among young children. Thus, there was need to develop a cost effective way to identify infection. The glass was placed on the outside of the iPhone’s camera where it was held in place with double-sided tape. The flashlight was used to provide additional light, the iPhone camera was used to take photographs, and scientists were able to examine the images on the iPhone screen. While a 70% percent accuracy rate is not perfect, it isn’t too bad either, especially when you consider the materials researchers have available to them in remote regions.
It is quite difficult to get adequate scientific and medical equipment to poor remote areas of the world. A conventional microscope is significantly more expensive than an iPhone 4S (which was the specific iPhone used). Utilizing cell phones as microscopes could actually become a valuable and viable diagnostic tool in developing countries. The scientists noted that one of the primary challenges was actually finding access to a power source to charge the phone. Areas that are very poor also typically experience unreliable access to electricity if they have access at all. This presents quite a problem because the highest risk populations for intestinal worm infections live in these areas. It is estimated that up to two billion people either suffer from intestinal worm infections or are at a high risk of becoming infected.
This study was the first case study where a cell phone microscope was used in the field to solve real problems. The adaption of mobile devices for health purposes or “health hacking” should continue and be encouraged in order to find cost-effective solutions in developing countries. Isaac Bogoch stated that for this adaptation to be “of clinical use” it must have the capacity to identify intestinal parasites with 80% accuracy. Despite only reaching the 70% accuracy mark, this study definitely proved proof of concept. Given advancements the cameras available on mobile devices, such as the improved camera on the iPhone 5, it is easily conceivable to reach the 80% accuracy mark. Cell phone microscopes could easily become a viable diagnostic tool in remote areas of the world.
Check out the study:
Mobile Phone Microscopy for the Diagnosis of Soil-Transmitted Helminth Infections: A Proof-of-Concept Study