The humble smartphone is being called into action as a potentially life-saving medical device in Africa, where combined with a specially designed microscope accessory, it is testing blood samples for nasty parasitic infections in mere seconds. Existing methods take far longer and involve scientists manually counting worms in a smear of blood, and its extraction requires specialist knowledge to carry out.
Thankfully, the vast majority of us don’t need to worry about blood parasites, but it’s a serious problem in some parts of the world, where the presence of a particular parasite called the Loa Loa worm is stopping treatment of other parasitic diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis. The problem is, the drug used to treat for these diseases can turn fatal if the patient is badly infected with the Loa Loa worm — making its detection very important.
The device is called the CellScope Loa, and consists of a phone attached to a specially made, 3D-printed holder that contains a high power lens, which sits under the camera. In the base is an arduino circuit board, and Bluetooth for connecting to the phone. The blood sample is loaded into the case, and complex algorithms check it for any wriggling worms. The final count is shown on the phone, which tells doctors whether the treatment could potentially be dangerous.
The CellScope Loa is being field tested in Cameroon, Africa, and results taken from the smartphone-based system match the manual worm counts, proving its effectiveness. The test takes less than three minutes in total — including the time it takes to get the blood sample — and the process is completely automated, so training is minimal.
Professor Daniel Fletcher, one of the researchers working on the project, told the BBC this is only the beginning for the technology. He said there are drugs to treat many tropical diseases, but the technology to identify the people who need the right drugs is lacking. In the future, the CellScope camera/microscope could be adapted to test for other diseases, including malaria and TB.
The program is now being expanded to include 40,000 people in the region.