In emerging countries, including those in Africa, medical professionals typically made use of less advanced technology, as electronic devices tend to be too sensitive to handle in such clinics. But with cell phones, smartphones in particular, now commonplace even in developing nations, it isn’t uncommon anymore to see doctors using mobile devices as part of their profession. And with the help of a special instrument, doctors in tropical countries may be able to spot the presence of a known eye worm parasite in blood samples.
A study published yesterday on the journal Science Transitional Medicine illustrates how medical professionals can leverage cell phone technology as part of their work. University of California-Berkeley bioengineer Daniel Fletcher led the study, which describes a camera phone microscope and a companion app that is capable of “immediately” spotting the African eye worm parasite called Loa loa.
L. loa is a parasite that is endemic to Central Africa, and quite a nasty one at that. It eventually grows into a worm and makes its way into the eye tissue. And when it works in concert with two other parasites – Onchocerca volvulus and Wuchereria bancrofti – it can be especially deadly. The former parasite causes river blindness, while the latter causes one’s limbs to swell, and when sufferers are given the usual drug (ivermectin) used to treat both parasites, they often encounter dangerous side effects if also infected by L. loa, including brain swelling.
Cell phone microscopes are not an entirely new discovery, and Fletcher himself had proposed the use of these little doohickeys as far back as 2009; back then, he suggested the use of cell phone microscopes as a means of detecting the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. But these microscopes were merely able to magnify, thereby not offering much of an improvement over conventional microscopes. It was also quite an inconvenient process to use cell phone microscopes in the past. But Fletcher’s invention does away with the long, drawn-out processes of the past, as all that has to be done is to take a blood-containing capillary and place it on a 3D-printed plastic case with a lens in it. That case can slide over an iPhone, thus aligning the invention’s lens with the device’s camera.
As for the companion app, it shoots a video of the magnified blood sample and makes use of an algorithm to check for movements that are consistent with those of L. loa. The app then counts the number of parasites in the sample, but doctors have to use it in the midday, which is when L. loa is active but the other two parasites mentioned above aren’t. And while the app is only capable of detecting L. loa at the present, Fletcher says that it can be modified to detect the presence of other parasites, such as hookworm and whipworm.
So far, medical experts are impressed with Fletcher’s invention. Quotes posted on Nature and attributed to Columbia biomedical engineer Samuel Sia suggest that the instrument, and similar others, has encouraged medical professionals to make use of consumer electronics-based solutions as well. He added, however, that the devices should be proven capable of working in real-life situations.