Using tape, rubber and a tiny glass ball, researchers transformed an iPhone into a cheap, yet powerful microscope able to image tiny blood cells. They’ve also added a clinical-grade cellphone spectroscope that might be able to measure some vital signs.
And with a few dollars and some patience, you can do the same to your own phone. (See instructions below.)
“It still amazes me how you can build near-research-grade instruments with cheap consumer electronics,” said physicist Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu of the University of California at Davis, leader of a study March 2 in PLoS ONE. “And with cellphones, you can record and transmit data anywhere. In rural or remote areas, you could get a diagnosis from a professional pathologist halfway around the world.”
Similar laboratory devices can cost thousands of dollars and be extremely bulky. Other researchers have created cellphone laboratory kits, but this new microscope is the most compact, simple and inexpensive design created so far. The team’s other new device — a light-splitting spectrometer — looks crude but may have high enough resolution to measure blood oxygen levels, for example.
Electrical engineer Aydogan Ozcan of the University of California at Los Angeles, who helped develop an award-winning $10 microscope for cellphones, said the simplicity of the new prototypes is a big advantage.
“They’re further miniaturizing this stuff. But we also need to focus on getting these innovative designs out in the field, tested, improved and saving the lives of people,” said Ozcan, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “In that sense, all of us working on this technology are in the same boat.”
Two existing cellphone-microscope designs inspired the new iteration, including Ozcan’s and another called CellScope, designed by bioengineer Daniel Fletcher at the University of California at Berkeley. Because both models protrude from the cellphone’s camera and have several delicate parts, Wachsmann-Hogiu set out to create a simpler and more compact design.
The team tucked a 1-mm-wide glass ball into a ring of rubber and slipped it over iPhone and iPhone 4 cameras. The images are magnified 350 times, but have a very thin plane of focus. To combat the resulting blur, the team created software able to stitch the sharp parts together into one crisp photo. They also made a prototype cellphone spectrometer (based on a patent they found) using narrow PVC tubing, electrical tape and a special grating able to split light into its component colors.
It costs about $20 to create the microscope and a few dollars to make the spectrometer, but Wachsmann-Hogiu said costs could easily drop below $10 for both. The tiny lenses could be made out of plastic instead of glass, and economies of scale could eventually kick in.
The team is working on improving the imagery of their microscope prototype and giving it the capability to detect microbes by fluorescence. They’re also building a phone-based app to stitch images together, count blood cells and determine blood oxygenation levels.
Ozcan said he looks forward to new consumer technology as an opportunity to make an even cheaper and more powerful laboratories-on-a-chip.
“There are dreamlike components in consumer electronics,” Ozcan said. “It’s orders of magnitude more amazing than the science community could have imagined just decades ago.”
DIY instructions to turn your own cellphone into a microscope are below.
Image: Standard microscope images (top row) compared to a iPhone microscope images (bottom row). Sickle-cell anemia blood is at left, and crystals are at right. (PLoS ONE/Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu et al./Center for Biophotonics at the University of California at Davis)
Citation: “Cell-Phone-Based Platform for Biomedical Device Development and Education Applications.” Zachary J. Smith, Kaiqin Chu, Alyssa R. Espenson, Mehdi Rahimzadeh, Amy Gryshuk, Marco Molinaro, Denis M. Dwyre, Stephen Lane, Dennis Matthews and Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu. PLoS ONE, Vol. 6, Issue 3. March 2, 2011. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017150