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  • Mobile phone diagnosis approaches field trials

Two innovative devices that use modified mobile phone technology to diagnose disease now have funds for more research and field tests in developing countries.

The 'CelloPhone' and the 'CellScope' — diagnostic imaging tools made from everyday camera phones — were winners of the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project prize, announced last week (8 April).

The CelloPhone team will use their share of the US$700,000 prize money to begin field trials later this year, Aydogan Ozcan, head of the laboratory developing the device, told SciDev.Net. Ozcan is assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the team will use UCLA's existing collaborative networks to carry out trials at large hospitals in Africa, South America and South Asia.

The CellScope team, from the US-based University of California, Berkeley, also intend to use their prize money to develop and test field-ready prototypes to diagnose malaria and tuberculosis.

CellScope harnesses traditional optical microscopy, clipping a small microscope onto a camera phone, then sending the captured image for diagnosis. In contrast, CelloPhone works by interpreting the 'shadows' of cells.

"On a sunny day your shadow would not show much of a picture because you are not transparent. But cells and most bacteria are not fully opaque … so their shadow contains a certain texture," Ozcan told SciDev.Net.

The devices should help rural medicine, where health clinics can ill-afford conventional microscopy or sending samples away for analysis.

CelloPhone loads samples of blood, urine or other bodily fluids into a modified mobile phone "in the same way you would a memory stick", says Ozcan. The images are captured using a special light source and the phone's camera, and then sent by multimedia message to a central station, from where a computer program returns a diagnosis as a text message. The system could also record data for epidemiological studies.

Ozcan says his device is cheap because it uses the phone's own electronics — additional components would cost around US$5–10 for each device.

The team is testing how accurately CelloPhone diagnoses diseases like malaria, HIV and tuberculosis, and Ozcan says they are "very close" to a commercial haematology analyser that costs around US$60,000–100,000.

David Grimshaw, head of the New Technologies International Programme at Practical Action, says the technologies are promising as mobile phone systems are so widespread in developing countries.

But he warns that socioeconomic issues must be considered, and urges researchers to involve stakeholders at each step — from identifying problems to formulating and delivering solutions.

Daniel Fletcher, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley lab that is developing CellScope, acknowledges that the roll-out of remote diagnosis could be difficult, since clinicians are used to diagnosing patients in person.

Francis Moussy, leader of diagnostics research at WHO Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR), agrees the technologies have potential, but says the challenges of cost control and the infrastructure needed for remote diagnosis must be considered.

The devices must also be field-tested against current 'gold standards', he adds.