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.

A microscope isn’t a diagnostic tool, however, it merely provides medical professionals with more detailed images than the naked eye would ever allow. But if you need a diagnosis on the go, Ozcan has a solution for that, too.

He’s developed a cellphone-friendly flow cytometry, a laser-based tool that doctors and scientists use in cell analysis. The device can provide detailed parameters used for blood analysis, including hemoglobin density and white and red blood cell counts, which can help a doctor better ascertain a patient’s malady—and thus identify a remedy.

Some of Ozcan’s tools can be used for an even more specific diagnoses of some of the world’s most formidable conditions, like HIV. A cellphone-based HIV-test reader developed by Ozcan uses an opto-mechanical attachment affixed to a cellphone camera to photograph lateral flow assays and magnify the pictures. (These assays typically detect the light interaction with specific nanoparticles that bind to HIV antigens.) The images are then processed by an app, available for both iPhone and Android, which can quantify antigen density and produce a diagnostic report on the spot.

Ozcan’s cellphone-based HIV test reader isn’t just a boon for high-risk populations who don’t have the time, money, or means to be tested at a clinic. It also has the potential to revolutionize the field of HIV/AIDS research and treatment.

“Our field tests incorporate the time stamp of the measurements in addition to the demographic and locational data of each patient,” Ozcan says, “which are then securely uploaded to a central server.”

With this database, Ozcan and his team have developed a Google Maps-type interface that can allow HIV researchers, policy-makers, or local governments to track the spread of the disease through a specific geographical location and time period. The findings could help researchers better understand the virus’ spread—and develop new tools to halt it. The same platform is also applied to other infectious diseases, including malaria.

But you don’t need to be a scientist yourself in order to benefit from Ozcan’s tool. His lab has developed cellphone attachments that could benefit almost everyone.

One cellphone-based device can detect possible allergens in food; an initial model designed to detect peanuts has cutting-edge sensitivity on the order of one-part-per-million. These tools aren’t commercially available yet, but if they ever arrive on the market, they could forever change the way we cope with allergies.

Other tools can sense harmful bacteria, like E. coli, in milk and water. The goal is to bring previously cost and location-prohibitive tests to new populations, as those who need them most are often least able to access them.

“This is the beginning of a revolution,” Ozcan says. “The technology will be adapted differently in different countries—but it will be adapted.”

The speed and success of adaptation will, he believes, depend on local laws, and Western countries might be less open to new technologies due to burdensome regulations and the complexities of insurance policies. But developing countries in Africa, South Asia, and South America will, Ozcan believes, begin to benefit from his inventions in the very near future.

“Developing countries will likely be the most innovative in transforming their health care delivery,” he says, “and that’s where these technologies will deliver the most impact. I don’t know yet how it’ll play in the rest of the world—but I’m optimistic.”