This smartphone microscope is saving lives in Africa


UC Berkeley engineers develop a new smartphone microscope that can detect infection by parasitic worms.


Access to a hematologist is not something that is all too common in many parts of Africa. That’s why a research team led by engineers at the University of California, Berkeley has developed a new mobile phone microscope that uses video to automatically detect and quantify infection by parasitic worms in a drop of blood. The latest iteration of UC Berkeley’s CellScope technology could potentially revive efforts to eradicate debilitating diseases in Africa, such as river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, by offering critical information to health providers in the field in a more accurate and efficient manner. This would allow workers to make potentially life-saving treatment decisions right on the spot.

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River blindness, which is the second-leading cause of infectious blindness worldwide, is typically transmitted through the bite of blackflies. Meanwhile, the second-leading cause of disability worldwide, lymphatic filariasis, is spread by mosquitoes and leads to elephantiasis — a condition marked by painful, disfiguring swelling. Both are endemic in certain regions in Africa.

Treatment often revolves around the drug ivermectin, or IVM. Yet, public health campaigns to administer the medication have been halted, and rightfully so, due to potentially fatal side effects for patients co-infected with Loa loa — a common cause of African eye worm. When there are high circulating levels of microscopic Loa loa worms in a patient, treatment with IVM can ultimately lead to severe or fatal neurologic damage.

The standard method of screening for levels of Loa loa involves trained technicians manually counting the worms in a blood smear using conventional laboratory microscopes, making the process impractical for use in field settings and in mass campaigns to administer IVM. That’s why the team of UC Berkeley engineers joined forces with Dr. Thomas Nutman from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and collaborators from Cameroon and France to develop the incredible, Arduino-based gadget.

For their most recent version of a mobile phone microscope, the aptly named CellScope Loa, the researchers paired a smartphone with a 3D-printed plastic base where the sample of blood is positioned. Fortunately, the parts housed within its base were relatively easy to allocate. These include an Atmel powered Arduino board, a Bluetooth module, LED lights, a USB port, as well as some gears and circuitry.

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As the researchers explain, control of the device is automated through a custom app that was designed solely for this purpose. With just a touch of the screen by a healthcare worker in the field, the phone wirelessly communicates over Bluetooth to controllers in the base to process and analyze the sample of blood. Its gears move the sample in front of the camera, and an algorithm instantly analyzes the telltale “wriggling” motion of the worms in captured in the video by the phone. From there, the worm count is displayed on the screen.

Impressively, the entire procedure takes under two minutes, starting from when the sample is inserted to displaying its results. According to UC Berkeley associate chair Daniel Fletcher, this processing time enables health workers to quickly determine whether or not it is safe to administer IVM on site.

“The availability of a point-of-care test prior to drug treatment is a major advance in the control of these debilitating diseases,” added fellow UC Berkeley professor Vincent Resh. “The research offering a phone based app is ingenious, practical and highly needed.”

At the moment, the engineers are looking to expand the trial of the hardware to around 40,000 people in Cameroon. If successful, there’s a hope that the kit could one day be used to screen out those infected with Loa loa and assist countless others who would otherwise suffer.

Intrigued? You can read all about the project here, or watch its demonstration below.

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