The smartphone microscope detects characteristic motion of larvae of the Loa Loa worm in blood

Mobile phone microscope detects parasites in blood

American researchers have developed a smartphone microscope to scan blood for dangerous parasites.

Created with the aim to help eradicate parasitic infections such as river blindness and elephantiasis in the central African region, the microscope is connected to an app running on Apple’s iPhone 5s.

Called CellScope Loa, after the worm Loa Loa, which it was designed to spot, the microscope captures video of a blood drop from a finger prick. The app subsequently analyses the images for the characteristic movements of the parasite.

“We previously showed that mobile phones can be used for microscopy, but this is the first device that combines the imaging technology with hardware and software automation to create a complete diagnostic solution,” said Daniel Fletcher, an associate chair and professor of bioengineering, whose UC Berkeley lab pioneered the CellScope. “The video CellScope provides accurate, fast results that enable health workers to make potentially life-saving treatment decisions in the field.”

The simple to use app doesn’t require any extensive training of the healthcare workers thus providing a cheap and handy tool to screen African population for the infection.

High concentration of the larvae form of the Loa parasite, known as the microfilariae, in blood has been associated with potentially lethal side effects in treatment of river blindness and elephantiasis.

Healthcare workers were forced to suspend mass administration of drugs against the two diseases after some people developed extreme reactions. The scientists hope that by excluding those with high concentration of Loa microfilariae in their blood, they could resume the mass treatment programme.

So far methods for measuring the larvae’s presence in blood required costly laboratory equipment and time-consuming procedures.

Unlike most modern diagnostic methods CellScope doesn’t look for chemical markers of the parasite’s presence but for their typical motion. The method doesn’t require any processing of the blood, limiting potential error and sample loss.

The app was tested in Cameroon with encouraging results. Data from the CellScope screening were compared with those from biomarker screening with both datasets identifying the same individuals.

Although additional work is needed to prepare the technology for broad use, the researchers predict that a team of three workers could screen up to 200 people during the four-hour midday window when Loa circulates at its peak in the blood.

The video below explains how the smartphone microscope works:

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