by Alfred Poor, Contributing Editor
Somewhere in Africa, a traveling health worker arrives at a remote village and finds a patient who may have malaria. The nearest health clinic is hundreds of miles away, and it will take days to get there. Diagnosis requires a trained clinician to examine a blood sample under a microscope, but how can you make that happen? Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to create a digital microscope that will capture high magnification images, record additional medical information, and transmit the entire package of data wirelessly to the distant clinic. Oh, and it has to be battery powered. And fit in your pocket. And cost about $100 to build. Mission impossible? Nope; it’s already been proven feasible by a UC Berkeley professor and a group of his students. What started out as a class exercise in microscope optics has blossomed into a full-fledged program that is likely to go into production and could change healthcare in this country and around the world.
Professor Daniel Fletcher realized that the cost of electronics and digital cameras has decreased dramatically in recent years. Wireless phone technology is ubiquitous, even in underdeveloped countries that never fully established landline phone service. Africa is forecast to have more than 30% mobile phone penetration by 2011. Microscopes remain the gold standard for using human fluids and tissues to screen for and diagnose a wide range of diseases and conditions. Why can’t these three separate technologies be combined to create a simple portable device that would give remote health workers , in third world countries as well as rural areas of the United States and other developed countries? So Fletcher got the idea of trying to use the camera in a cell phone as a digital microscope. He and his students drilled out the camera lens of a cast-off phone handset to expose the CCD sensor, and they went to work.
The first attempt required a four-foot optics table and a bunch of lenses, but it worked. The second attempt was a bit smaller, but still had a large aluminum tube to hold the optics. The first real prototype has a skinny appendage that looks a bit like a snorkel, with a clamp at the end on which you can mount a glass slide. The device is made to clamp onto the back of a mobile phone handset, and was made with about $75-worth of off-the-shelf components. What started as a class project has become The CellScope Project ( http://blumcenter.berkeley.edu/telemicroscopy-disease-diagnosis) and has earned the backing of CITRIS, the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and Microsoft Research. The device now has 50x magnification, which is suitable for capturing images of blood samples, and can include an inexpensive, low-power illumination ring using white LEDs.
This is certainly a story of inspiration and applying technology to help make life better for people around the world. But the take-away is even bigger than that. The old saw goes “Give a kid a hammer, and the whole world looks like a nail.” Sure, the point of that is that you need to use the right tool for the job, and you can’t go around force fitting one solution to solve another problem. But sometimes you can repurpose something designed for one task, and use it for another.
The lesson here is that you don’t need to start from scratch on every project. In a lot of circles, the project specifications listed at the start of this article would have resulted in multi-million dollar research budgets and years of developing expensive custom components. Sometimes you need to do that, but there are cases where it’s a good idea to take a step back and ask yourself, “What would MacGiver do?” Don’t reinvent the wheel, but look around and see what pieces are readily available that can be repurposed to get you to your goal faster, easier, and at a lower cost. You may not conquer malaria, but you could end up being a hero all the same.