UC Davis iPhone tweak turns camera into disease spotting microscope

A MacGyver tweak to the iPhone by researchers at UC Davis transforms the 5 megapixel camera into a medical-grade microscope capable of detecting blood disorders

A new tweak for the iPhone by researchers from the University of California transforms the five-megapixel camera on the Smartphone into a powerful microscope capable of detecting blood diseases. The best part? The enhancement cost the researchers less than $50.

UC Davis physicist Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu and his team of researchers created the smartphone microscope by combining the camera with a 1-millimeter-diamter ball lens which they embedded in a rubber sheet and taped onto the iPhone’s camera. The ball lens, at 5x magnification, has the same power as a toy magnifying glass, but boosts the smartphone’s ability enough to deal with features on the level of 1.5 microns—small enough to identify certain blood cells.

The Optical Society explains that this is possible for two reasons: “First, ball lenses excel at gathering light, which determines resolution. Second, the camera’s semiconductor sensor consists of millions of light-capturing cells. Each cell is only about 1.7 microns across…enough to capture precisely the tiny high-resolution image that comes through the ball lens.”

The Davis team’s discovery isn’t the first smartphone-microscope development, but Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu says that simplicity and low-cost were his goals. Initially, the team tried using drops of water on the camera’s lens the water kept drying. The ball lens they eventually used cost $30-40, but the price could be lowered if mass-produced.iphone = bottom 3 slides

The iPhone microscope still bows to high-priced laboratory options as you can see in the pollen and plant stem slides. The iPhone 4 microscope is on the bottom, and a commercial-grade microscope took the top images.   But Wachsmann-Hogiu believes the device would be valuable in rural areas with little access to lab equipment. The camera is good enough to detect disorders such as iron deficiency anemia or the banana-shaped blood cells of sickle-cell. Field workers would put blood on a slide, take a picture with the iPhone and send it out for analysis.

The researchers are already thinking of ways to tweak the tweak, such as adding larger lenses to detect skin diseases and creating software for instant feedback. They’re also looking at the capability of switching the ball lense for a spectrometer to measure oxygen in blood and diagnose chemical markers. The team plans on presenting at the Frontiers in Optics meeting in San Jose, held in two weeks.