Biomedical engineers are developing a device that transforms a smartphone into an instrument that can quickly and accurately diagnose malaria in the field. Ben Gruber has more.
STORY: This device could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives from malaria. Biomedical engineers at Texas A&M University are developing a technology that converts a smartphone into a polarized microscope. This can diagnose malaria in a Rwandan village with the same level of accuracy as a high-tech lab in a major Western city. SOUNDBITE (English) GERARD COTÈ, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "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 centralized lab somewhere. So basically what we are taking is that gold standard and making it into a portable device." The device images a blood sample using polarized light that can detect a malaria parasite byproduct called Hemozoin crystals which appear as very bright dots in the image and are an accurate indicator of infection. According to the scientists, once the device is attached to the phone, the diagnosis takes just minutes using a phone app. SOUNDBITE (English) GERARD COTÈ, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "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." According to the World Health Organization, this year has seen 214 million malaria cases globally, 438,000 of which were fatal… most of those were in Sub Saharan Africa. It's those stark statistics which inspired the team to keep the device as affordable as possible to ensure it could be used where it's needed most. Smartphones are widely available in Africa and the team says the cost of the add-on optics will be less than $50USD. The team plans on field testing the cell phone microscope next summer in Rwanda.