Your Smartphone is Becoming a Portable Laboratory

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A Medical Lab in the Palm of Your Hand

Not everyone can visit a medical clinic—but almost anyone can use a cellphone. Learn how one professor is changing the field of medical testing by turning smartphones into portable laboratories.

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Last April, a young teenager at summer camp took a bite of dessert—and died a few hours later. She had experienced an extreme allergic reaction to peanut butter, which, unknown to her, was lurking in her food. Millions of Americans have such allergies, and each year about a dozen will die after accidentally ingesting a peanut.

But what if there were a way to test foods for concealed allergens? What if, with a small tool attached to our cellphones, we could analyze the safety of all our meals before we ate them?

That’s the goal behind Aydogan Ozcan’s research. Ozcan, an electrical engineering and bioengineering professor at UCLA, specializes in Photonics, the study of light, as applied to nanotechnology and biotechnology. Through his research group, he’s also created new biomedical imaging, sensing, and microscopy techniques.

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These tools might all sound hopelessly complex, but what Ozcan does with them is brilliantly simple. In recent years, Ozcan has developed inventive integrations of biomedical tools with cellphones, turning iPhones and Androids into mobile laboraties. In the past, almost all medical testing had to be performed at a point-of-care site, like a clinic. But Ozcan’s inventions have led to a revolution in medical testing and research.

“A cellphone is a perfect platform for advanced microanalysis and diagnostic tools,” Ozcan says. “There are currently around 7 billion cellphone subscribers, so volume is a huge benefit. Plus, today’s cellphones are more advanced than the early supercomputers of the 1990s, and they’re extremely cost-effective. They’re really like the Swiss Army knife of medical tools.”

Of course, no cellphone comes from the manufacturer equipped with the ability to detect and diagnose diseases.

That’s where Ozcan’s research comes in. Thanks to his expertise in photonics, Ozcan has created lightweight, pocket-sized gadgets integrated into cellphones that can test for a broad range of diseases and transmit the information directly to secure servers located, for example, at a remote hospital or data center. And they can do so without sacrificing sensitivity or quality.

Among these tools is one of the most basic pieces of equipment in science: the microscope. Optical microscopes are an old tool—the first was invented in the 17th century—but the size and the fragility of its design has long prevented it from being used in field research.

Ozcan remedied this problem by designing a portable microscope that can be attached to any smartphone, iPhone or Android. (He and his researchers don’t take sides in the cellphone wars, though they do enjoy Android’s open-source technology.)

The instrument is so sensitive that it can examine, for example, red blood cells, which are about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, as well as microbes and even viruses. A pathologist tracking a disease in the field could easily use the microscope to look at parasites or bacteria, among other things—without repeated trips to the lab.