Scientific instruments on your mobile phone

100815 gizmos 1
Jeffrey Phillips

The smartphone in your pocket connects you to the world wherever you stand. The potential of this tiny powerful computer extends way beyond sharing cat videos – your mobile phone can go where sophisticated lab equipment can’t. Engineers have developed nimble devices that hijack your phone’s imaging and computing power, and are set to revolutionise medical diagnostics. They’re rolling out to healthcare workers in developing countries, primary school classrooms and your family home. We bring you up to date with mobile phone clip-ons that bring the laboratoryto your pocket with the swipe of a finger. 

1. Droplet Lens 

Set to transform the science classroom, these 50 cent lenses attach to smartphone cameras, converting them to microscopes that magnify up to 100 times. Future applications include detection of skin cancer and analysis of diseased crops. And you can make them – all you need is some elastomer, a 3D-printed plastic cartridge, an oven and 20 minutes. A kickstarter campaign for the “DIY lens maker” was launched by Stephen Lee’s team at the Australian National University in July. 

2. D3 (digital diffraction diagnosis) system

Developed by Massachusetts General Hospital scientists, this gadget will broaden cancer screening in limited resource regions. The imaging module has an LED light that shines through a blood or tissue sample mixed with specially designed microbeads that can detect cancer-related molecules. At just $1.80 per test, pilot tests identified abnormal PAP smears, lymphoma markers and human papilloma virus DNA.

3. iBGStar

This small, sleek device turns your iPhone or iPad into a blood glucose meter. Prick your finger with a lancet, draw blood into the electrochemical sensor through a test strip and up pop blood glucose levels. The device comes with an iOS app for “real-time” tracking: type in meals, exercise and changes to insulin injections and send combined data to doctors to devise better diabetes management plans. It can be used on its own without a phone and has been available in Australia since 2012.

4. Oto HOME

Kids often get ear infections but also hate going to the doctor. This prompted San Francisco-based medical tech company CellScope to develop the Oto HOME – a clip-on conical optical device for iPhones that turns a phone’s camera into an otoscope. A short video of  an afflicted eardrum is sent to an on-call paediatrician. Within two hours, you get a response that includes a diagnosis and treatment plan minus the waiting room. The device is available in California.

5. uMED

uMED costs $25 and runs on any low-tech phone. It is an electrochemical reader designed to test for environmental pollutants, measure blood glucose levels and detect malaria. Insert a sample strip containing blood, urine or water, select the test and hit “go”. The device then sends results to physicians or researchers tracking disease outbreaks. uMED’s software converts data to audible tones that can be transmitted over the voice channel of any mobile network.

6. Loa 

This CellScope device diagnoses the parasitic Loa Loa eye worm – a potentially lethal co-infection for recipients of certain parasite drug treatments in Africa. Smartphones snap on to the device and gears on a 3D-printed plastic base shuttle blood samples along the phone’s camera, recording video. An algorithm then analyses them for worm wriggles. In a pilot study the Loa quantified  worm levels within three minutes.

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