Ever since the new iPhones were announced, millions of people have been pondering one of life’s most important questions: to upgrade or not to upgrade? For me, the newly improved camera could take my Instagram game to a whole new level. For others, retinal scanning could help secure important business emails. Whether you use your phone to post pictures of your vacation, respond to important emails, or stalk an ex-boyfriend, there’s no denying that phones have become integral parts of our lives. For people without access to healthcare, cell phones can help save their lives. Even in Africa, 93% of people have access to cell phone service. This has spurred scientists to find ways to make diagnosing, treating, or tracking diseases as easy as using an app on your phone.
If your favorite App is Instagram,
Like me, your camera is one of most used features of your phone. Scientists in the Fletcher lab at the University of California, Berkeley also make use of the iPhone’s camera. However, the pictures they take are not of brunches or beach vacations. Their subjects of choice are the bacteria and parasites that cause disease, and the app they use identifies these organisms living in humans.
“The places where many of these infectious diseases are, do not have the physicians capable or the equipment available to do the diagnosis….Mobile microscopes can help spread quality healthcare to places it hasn’t reached yet,” Fletcher explained in a video posted to Youtube.
One of these mobile microscopes, CellScope Loa, is designed to detect the Loa Loa parasite in human blood. Loa Loa is common in areas of Africa that also have Onchocerca volvulus, an eye worm that causes river blindness. The treatment for river blindness could kill anyone with high levels of Loa Loa in the bloodstream, so it is vital for doctors to know how much Loa Loa is in a patient’s blood before treating them. CellScope Loa works by placing an iPhone into a device that aligns the phone’s camera with a lens over a sample of blood. Their app detects the parasite when it wriggles past blood cells and pushes them out of the way. The amount of Loa Loa in the blood will pop up on the screen, letting healthcare workers knows if the patient is safe to receive treatment. CellScope Loa makes it fast, simple, and easy to detect Loa Loa outside of a laboratory and eliminates the need for skilled scientists to identify the parasites directly.
Variations of the CellScope can also help diagnose tuberculosis, malaria, and oral cancer, while attachments placed directly onto the iPhone’s camera can help detect eye and ear infections. In fact, the Oto, developed from CellScope technology, allows parents to takes videos of their child’s ears and upload them to an app where doctors can diagnose infections.
If you’re more fond of SnapChat,
you might be interested in an app developed from the University of Cambridge called Colorimetrix that can diagnose conditions using special color-changing strips of paper. Urine or other bodily fluids can be applied to the paper that will change color depending on the molecules in the urine. In people with kidney disease, for instance, high levels of the protein albumin will change the paper from yellow to greenish-blue. The patient can take a picture of the paper through the app, which will compare the paper to a pre-calibrated strip. The results can be sent to a doctor for diagnosis as fast as you send a Snapchat of your dog to your friends. This technology will be especially useful to people who have limited access to doctors or hospitals.
If Facebook is more your thing,
Then you might identify with researchers here at the University of Georgia who are using social networks within a community in Kampala, Uganda to track the spread of Tuberculosis (TB). These social networks are not the virtual ones you find on Facebook, but rather the groups a person encounters during their daily routine. The bacteria that causes tuberculosis spreads through air when a person with TB coughs, talks, or even sings, potentially infecting anyone in their social network (we should be happy that the only unwanted things transmitted through our social networks are political posts). Patients verified to have tuberculosis who voluntarily enroll in the study will receive a cell phone that tracks their location via GPS. By following where these people go, researchers hope to identify places in the community where tuberculosis is being transmitted the most.
“These volunteers are in a closed network. You know who is within the social network–where they hang out, the bars they go to, or their churches,” says Edriss Yassine, a graduate student working on the project.
“Where they spend the most time is where you would find the most amount of transmission. Ultimately we want to be able to implement public health interventions to disrupt this transmission.”
In addition to seeing where tuberculosis is transmitted, this study also aims to identify who is transmitting it. By looking at the unique DNA of the tuberculosis-causing bacteria in each patient from the social network, researchers can pinpoint who transmitted the bacteria to whom.
Ultimately, these studies hope to understand how tuberculosis is spread in order to design ways to prevent outbreaks within communities.
Whether you HAVE To get every new iPhone upgrade, worry over perfecting your instagram feed, or find yourself three years back in your friends-cousins-boyfriends pictures, don’t feel bad–the obsession with our phones is creating new, innovative, and less expensive ways to bring healthcare to people who may not otherwise have access. Here’s hoping that one day access to healthcare is as ubiquitous as cell phone towers.
About the Author
|Megan Prescott is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Georgia. She dedicates her time outside the lab to serving as President of UGA’s Women in Science (WiSci) organization, volunteering with the Junior League of Athens, and continuously watching The Office on Netflix. She counts each day she leaves the lab without giving herself TB as a success. More from Megan Prescott.|