Smartphone Microscopes: How Practical Are They, Really?

Microscopes have come a long way from the ones packaged in the science kits you might have been given when you were a kid. How far, exactly? Well, you can now use microscopes that work with your smartphone.

Understandably, the mental image of that might make you raise your eyebrows, but let’s take a look at how this technology is being used.

University Researchers Create a Low-Cost Manufacturing Method

Often, once word gets out about a new technology, the price for trying it out is too high for most consumers to manage. However, a team of researchers from the University of Houston has discovered a way to make smartphone microscopes for a production cost of just one cent each.

Using a heated liquid polymer that’s placed onto a cool surface, it’s possible to create a contact lens-like accessory that pairs with the viewfinder on a smartphone. Once installed on the phone, the microscope lens can magnify powerfully enough so users can see large cells, skin and tissue.

The researchers say their invention could be useful in scenarios where resources are limited. If you’re ready to outfit your iPhone with a similar gadget, you can do so for less than 10 dollars.

A Smartphone Microscope That Can Spot Blood Parasites

Tropical diseases that inflict blood borne parasites are very serious, especially when patients are from developing countries and lack access to medical care. However, a smartphone microscope called CellScope hopes to change that.

Scientists at the University of California Berkeley engineered it to spot parasites that are associated with onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis. Both diseases are spread when insects bite their victims and deposit larvae, which eventually develop into worms.

These ailments are deadly, and they’re characterized by symptoms ranging from swelling of the limbs and skin thickening (in cases of lymphatic filariasis) to terribly bothersome itching and blindness (with onchocerciasis).

Both diseases can be treated with ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug, but there’s a catch: These patients are often simultaneously infected with another parasite, called Loa loa. When that’s the case, patients who receive ivermectin can suffer severe side effects that may be fatal.

Until recently, the only way to test for Loa loa was through a blood smear test that depends on a traditional microscope. If a patient is too far from a testing facility, getting results can take days.

However, CellScope relies on a smartphone and a special base to give results much faster. It takes video footage of a blood sample and then analyzes it with an algorithm to detect the motion of the Loa loa parasite. The verdict is available almost instantly.

Scientists have been field testing the CellScope in Cameroon. It won’t replace the different types of microscopes used for scientific research, but in places where resources are scarce it’s a worthy supplement.

The Smartphone Microscope That Could Speed Up Skin Cancer Diagnose

In addition to being potentially valuable in scientific settings, one forward-thinking scientist believes smartphone microscopes could help people to monitor their health as well. In June, Maryam Sadegh unveiled the MoleScope at the World Congress of Dermatology.

Her invention uses a smartphone attachment, complementing app and an analytical platform to help people spot changes in their skin that may be signs of cancer. It’s possible for users to share images of suspicious skin markings with family members, and eventually their doctors.

The consumer version of the product is expected to retail at $149. Theoretically, if people get into the habit of checking their skin regularly, they might not avoid seeking treatment, meaning cases of skin cancer could be detected earlier.

Besides these examples, mini smartphone microscopes could be worthwhile for satisfying a curious kid or adult. Not to mention, you’re probably feeling even more intrigued than usual about the capabilities of your smartphone, a gadget that was initially used for communication, but can now do so much more.

Image by Milosz1 via Flickr

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Meet Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a Gadget Flow writer. She is also a contributor to websites like VentureBeat, VICE, TechnoBuffalo and GearDiary. To read more posts by Kayla, subscribe to her weekly newsletter on her personal tech blog.


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