Could your smartphone one day notify you that you are in the early stages of a life-threatening disease — long before a doctor does? Strong signs indicate that mobile phones will become capable of that and many more types of medical diagnostic tasks. The race is on at UCLA, UC Berkeley and other organizations to imbue cell phones with imaging and microscope-like functionality that could turn them into lifesavers on a grand scale. Commercial companies offering $10 hardware parts aimed at these applications and more are starting to take shape. Here are more details on the escalating and exciting development of the pocket doctor.
Mobile phones could have a bright future in simple but powerful medical applications aimed at poverty- and disease-stricken parts of the world, as well as at average Joes and Janes. For example, researchers at UCLA have developed a phone-based imaging technology called LUCAS (Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging) that has the potential to monitor the condition of people with HIV and malaria. Phones with LUCAS onboard can capture an image of a blood or saliva sample then illuminate it with short wavelength blue light in such a way that a remote doctor can make a diagnosis.
Professor Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA is behind LUCAS and is one of the leading researchers working on imaging applications for mobile phones. You can visit his research group’s web site here. Just last week, Ozcan and his team made waves with a $10 part for mobile phones that can act like a microscope, without a lens (see the photo here). The hope is that the technology will allow early disease detection and that it could be built into most cell phones. Ozcan has formed a commercial company, Microskia, to spread the technology, as The New York Times recently reported.
Ozcan isn’t the only researcher who foresees mobile phones notifying us that we are sick as soon as the earliest signs of disease appear. Berkeley researchers have developed a cell phone microscope, CellScope, that is aimed at making on-the-go diagnoses. Berkeley researchers also foresee cell phones becoming capable of imaging early stage tumors directly on the phones, as seen in the simulation of a breast cancer tumor at left (and as discussed in the video below).
open-source apps also are aimed at mobile phone-based medical applications. EpiSurveyor is an ambitious, open-source, database-driven platform, with roots in open source, for gathering and sharing medical data using mobile phones. It’s widely used in Africa and Indonesia, and its developer, Dr. Joel Selanikio, has won prestigious awards for it. He developed it because he noticed that cell phones are in use even in the poorest parts of the world.
Among the huge drivers for innovation surrounding medical diagnostic and data collection tools for mobile phones are the sheer ubiquity of the devices, and how they are always with us. It’s entirely likely that, over time, mobile phones will become the most commonly used tools for medical diagnostics — our pocket doctors.