Simple tools turn iPhone into inexpensive microscope

For less than $50, your physicians could have a microscope attachment on their smartphones, according to the latest research from University of California-Davis.

Researchers used a ball lens just 1 millimeter in diameter, placed it into a rubber sheet, and taped it over the lens of an iPhone camera. The result: When the adapted phone takes a picture, the image is magnified more than 350 times, enough for physicians to see diseased blood cells, such as sickle-cell anemia, or an iron deficiency. Researchers are working on an algorithm-based app that would provide an automatic partial- or full blood count from the image, as well.

The new lens combination isn't the first to turn a smartphone into a microscope, but at such a low cost, "it puts a whole range of crazy iPhone shame," PCWorld blogger Chris Bandrick writes.

The ball lens does have a few drawbacks, chief among them its tendency to distort the edges of an image so that only a small area in the center is clear. UC-Davis researchers say they've solved much of this problem with software, however, reducing the blurring and increasing resolution outside the center of the photo.

One exciting possibility for the low-cost technology could be clinicians taking pictures of blood or other samples in the field, and emailing them to specialty colleagues for analysis and consult, according to bloggers at TechCrunch.

Researchers also turned the iPhone into an inexpensive spectrometer with simple transmission grating and black electrical tape. The goal of this segment of the research is to use the attachment to determine blood oxygenation levels in human tissue by placing a tissue sample between the spectrometer add-on and a light source, researchers say.

The iPhone, though, isn't the only smartphone on which these new tools will work. "We have replicated some of these experiments using other phones from different manufacturers with qualitatively similar results [not shown], indicating that the choice of phone and camera specifications are not the limiting factors in the performance of our system," the study authors say.

The product could be on the market in as little as two years, UC-Davis physicist Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu tells Mobile Health Outlook.

To learn more:
- read the UC-Davis study
- check out this Wired article
- dig into this PCWorld post
- get more detail from Mobile Health Outlook
- take a look at TechCrunch's analysis