29/04/10

Tiny microscope eyes the developing world

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A tiny microscope that is lighter than an egg could improve disease diagnosis and water safety monitoring in developing countries and during natural disasters, say its US inventors.

Claimed to be the world’s smallest and — at only 46 grams — lightest microscope, the device can be operated by anyone qualified to prepare a microscopy slide.

The microscope’s light-emitting diode illuminates a sample, creating a holographic image, which is then digitally captured and sent via SMS or email to a computer that provides a quick result.

Its design builds on LUCAS technology — Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell Monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging.

It is intended mainly to detect malaria parasites, bacteria, or to examine blood cell count, said lead researcher on the microscope, Aydogan Ozcan, from the University of California, Los Angeles, in the United States.

Field trials are planned for the middle of the year, Ozcan told SciDev.Net, adding that he has received funding from a major research charity.

Andrew Scott, policy and programmes director at Practical Action, a charity that uses technology to alleviate poverty, said: "There are likely to be many places where this new microscope will indeed be of benefit".

But one limitation is that it requires a functioning telecommunications system as well as a source of energy, he added.

Ricardo Leitao, of New York University School of Medicine, in the United States, who is working with medical nongovernmental organisations to set up guidelines for a low-cost telemedicine "solution" for remote areas in developing countries, said that "a portable, rugged, user-friendly, low cost, maintenance-free and ‘tele-capable’ microscope will be of enormous potential and broad application range for developing country healthcare needs" (see Massive potential in miniature microscopes).

Regular microscopes can also use image recognition software and be used in telemedicine, so this procedure is not specific to LUCAS technology, Rick Dickinson, a trustee of the Millennium Health Microscopy Foundation, told SciDev.Net.

"I can’t see how adapting the LUCAS concept can offer a significant widespread benefit in the specific application of tropical field work over that of a conventional optical field microscope," he said. "It will be an expensive stand-alone product, and suffer the constant disadvantages of any digital, telecoms, electronic product."

He added that we cannot expect to make significant progress with electronic devices until there is a reliable infrastructure for tele-medicine in the developing world.

But "the only way this can ever happen is to keep trying and developing and making products like this, and thereby constantly evolve the infrastructure and working practices," he said.

Link to article abstract in Lab on a Chip

References

Lab on a Chip doi: 10.1039/c000453g