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In this bad economy, altruism can go a long way
29 July 2009
Salina Christmas , Web Editor

The Cellscope won’t make millionaires out of the scientists who invented it. But it proves that when all else get scrapped due to the lack of ‘business justification’, altruistic projects plough on.

Conceived by a group of bioengineering researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the Cellscope is essentially a makeshift microscope made out of your average Nokia N73 mobile phone – the one with 3.2 megapixel camera capacity.

When paired with a compact optical microscope, the phone becomes a high-resolution microscopy device that offers a magnification of up to 50x.

The Cellscope was created by Dr Daniel Fletcher, Dr Erik Douglas, Dr Wilbur Lam, Neil Switz, Robi Maamari, David Breslauer from the Bioengineering Department, University of California at Berkeley

The device could enable medical practitioners in the poorer and more remote parts of the world – those who simply can't afford proper microscopes – to diagnose malaria by detecting the causative parasite in the blood; similarly, it can aid diagnosis of sickle cell anaemia by examining blood samples for the characteristic red blood cell shape.

It isn’t bad, as far as photography goes

The Cellscope works in a manner that would intrigue a photographer. Photographers don’t really like manufacturer’s pre-sets – those ‘automated’ options or settings that usually come with the more mediocre camera models, and, of course, mobile phones.

The pre-sets might be a godsend to those who don’t know their f numbers from their ISO. To those who do, pre-sets reduce their control of lighting and other parameters.

How it works and what it captures
Source: Mobile Phone Based Clinical Microscopy for Global Health Applications/PLoS ONE

The Cellscope, however, is clever because it operates by manipulating the limitations dictated by the Nokia N73’s camera pre-sets. Using mobile phone camera default settings, the scientists are able to make the Cellscope capture brightfield images with the flash disabled, and fluorescent images using ‘night mode’, again with the flash disabled.

The pre-sets, in this case, are definitely a good thing.

But the Cellscope is not perfect. In the paper, published in open access web journal PLoS ONE on July 22, the scientists note: “Night mode slightly increases exposure time of the camera to a maximum of 0.2s, but likely performs software-based contrast adjustments on the image as well."

They continued: “We were not able to manually set the exposure time. However, single images provided adequate signal-to-noise for easy viewing and analysis.”

Playing MacGyver

Science and charisma. Can we have more boffins like Angus MacGyver?

Most importantly, the Cellscope works because it uses infrastructure and materials that are readily available around us.

Telemedicine or telehealth is not really a clever concept pioneered by the PR departments of medical device giants or policymakers. It’s about playing MacGyver, or making do, with what is already out there that is cheap, easily accessible and convenient. When the economy is bad, it pays to be resourceful.

For the good of the people

Mobile phones, and to an extent, web access, are not luxuries anymore. You can’t define poverty, or even ‘digital divide’, by their absence. Digitally, the social game has moved on.

The Blum Center For Developing Economies, the philanthropic body behind the Cellscope initiative, knows that.

Have boda boda, will travel. 'Bodas For Life' is one of the schemes initiated by the Blum Center to help rural communities in Uganda make the most out of mobile phones and mopeds
Photo: The Blum Center For Developing Economies

The center has other projects involving the use of mobile phones in rural areas for healthcare purposes, including ‘Smartphone for Better Health ’ – using mobile phones to support voucher-based initiatives for disease treatments – and ‘Bodas for Life ’ – using mobile phones and mopeds to support paramedic service in remote areas.

In this bad economy, altruism can go a long way.

I’m going back to college (well, University College London) at the end of summer in the hope of doing something altruistic one day with my digital and social science knowledge. I’m doing it the hard way and for the long haul, but it will be worth it. If you know of any philanthropic initiative out there which involves the use of digital technology and science, do give me a shout. I am keen to hear about it.

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