A lens with barely the power of a toy magnifying glass can turn iPhones into pocket-sized medical imaging devices capable of showing the size and count of red blood cells. The new smartphone makeover offers doctors or nurses a handy tool for diagnosing blood-related health conditions or diseases in the most primitive of working conditions.
The low-magnification lens creates high-resolution images because it captures enough light for the iPhone's built-in camera to do its work. Health care workers armed with the iPhone can transmit the data from a developing country's hospital or rural clinic to labs for proper diagnosis. U.S. students could also make use of the mobile medical device in their science classes.
"Field workers could put a blood sample on a slide, take a picture, and send it to specialists to analyze," said Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu, a physicist at the University of California in Davis, Calif.
Wachsmann-Hogiu and his team harnessed the power of relatively cheap ball lenses costing $30 to $40, but first had to find a way to deal with the distorted images from the lenses. They used digital imaging software to correct for the distortions, as well as to stitch together overlapping tiny in-focus areas of each image to create a single larger picture.
The ball lenses can already reveal signs of iron deficiency anemia or the deformed red blood cells of sickle cell anemia, but larger lenses could help diagnose skin disease. Better software might count and indentify blood cells for an even wider range of diseases.
By swapping in a spectrometer for the lens, researchers can also use iPhones to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood and diagnose diseases based on their chemical markers. Spectrometers break up light into separate wavelengths — similar to how a glass prism separates white light into rainbow colors — so that researchers can identify the chemical "fingerprint" created by molecules absorbing certain wavelengths.
"We had worked with spectrometers for diagnostics, and didn't think it would be too far a stretch," Wachsmann-Hogiu said.
The researchers are scheduled to present their findings at the Optical Society's Annual Meeting, Frontiers in Optics (FiO) 2011, in San Jose, Calif. on Oct. 19.
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