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If a mosquito bites in Sub-Saharan Africa, grab your cell phone

The CellScope might revolutionize the speed and ease with which we diagnose and screen for malaria, tuberculosis, and more.

In the fast-emerging field of "telemedicine"--which is basically health care in absentia--an increasing number of procedures and examinations can occur long distance. Telemedicine refers to anything from the most basic transmission of data (like emailing your medical records) to the most complex operations (like surgery by remote control).

In recent months, a team at U.C. Berkeley has been developing and testing a new use for the CellScope, a small microscope it invented that connects to mobile phones. According to the U.C. Berkeley News Center:

The engineers had previously shown that a portable microscope mounted on a mobile phone could be used for bright field microscopy, which uses simple white light -- such as from a bulb or sunlight -- to illuminate samples. The latest development adds to the repertoire fluorescent microscopy, in which a special dye emits a specific fluorescent wavelength to tag a target - such as a parasite, bacteria or cell -- in the sample.
The CellScope was tested using Nokia mobile phones. Photo courtesy of Fletcher Lab, University of California Berkeley

Big deal, right? New uses for cell phones are invented on a daily basis. What caught my eye about the CellScope is that it is powerful enough to detect malaria, tuberculosis, and sickle red blood cells through an automated image analysis program.

In their research article, published in the July 22 issue of the online medical journal PloS One, the authors lay out grand visions for this little gadget:

We expect such a telemedicine system for global healthcare via mobile phone--offering inexpensive brightfield and fluorescence microscopy integrated with automated image analysis--to provide an important tool for disease diagnosis and screening, particularly in the developing world and rural areas where laboratory facilities are scarce but mobile phone infrastructure is extensive.

The Berkeley invention is really a convergence of existing technologies: vast mobile phone networks; greater computational power; high-resolution digital cameras already installed in cell phones; and inexpensive, high-power LEDs. Putting these all together was the bright idea. A cell phone microscope strikes me as one of those, "They haven't been invented yet?" inventions.

But one niggling question gives me pause. Since not just anyone knows how to obtain a sample necessary for microscopic analysis, won't people still have to travel to a medical professional to use this kind of device? In other words, how mobile is this, really?

In spite of this (potentially major) glitch, the remote monitoring of one's health on a microscopic level could be truly invaluable for all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. As professor Daniel Fletcher, who led the Berkeley team, told me today: "A wide variety of infectious disease can be screened with microscopy, such as chagas disease, and in this country a mobile microscope could be useful for home health care applications like complete blood counts. We are also exploring applications in agriculture and food safety." also raises the possible use of the CellScope for travelers who might need a speedy but remote diagnosis.

Again, how this will play out in the hands of ordinary people, as opposed to medical professionals, remains to be seen. But if I find myself in Tanzania this February, as I hope to be, and forget to take my malaria medication one morning, and am stung by a mosquito, and had packed a CellScope alongside my Tylenol, you'd better believe I'd figure out how to use it.