Beating Eye Worm With An iPhone Microscope

| May 8, 2015

Diagnosing dangerous diseases can be difficult in developing countries. L. loa, or eye worm is one such disease that has required a high tech solution for diagnosis but has had to rely on a battery powered low tech solution to diagnose which have proven to be unreliable, and cumbersome. This has now changed with the solution being a simple smartphone camera.

Eyeworm Diagnosis In Africa

Eyeworm Diagnosis In Africa

What Is Eyeworm

Loiasis is transmitted through the repeated bites from deer flies, or known as mangrove, or mango flies. It is a parasite most commonly found in West and Central Africa, and experts have estimated that 20 to 40% of people living in these regions report that they have contracted eye worm in the past.

Eye Worm Diagnosis

A study in The University of California was carried out by bioengineer Daniel Fletcher and his colleagues, and then published in the Science Translational Medicine on the 6th of May. The demonstrated exactly how you could use a smartphone such as the iPhone to change medicine diagnosis in far off countries, and developing nations. They used a specially developed camera phone microscope and an app that can detect the presence of the African parasite Loa loa from a blood sample immediately.

Problems Treating L. loa

A problem that has reached endemic proportions in countries such as Central Africa, L. loa is a parasite bacteria that grows into a worm which can then infects the tissue of the eye. These worms also cause other severe problems when contracted with other parasitic nematodes. These include the Onchocerca volvulus, which causes river blindness and also Wuchereria bancrofti, which causes severe swelling in the limbs. When one drug called ivermectin, is typically given to treat people who have these 2 other parasites, it can cause brain swelling if the person is also infected with L. loa.

L. Loa Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with multiple parasite infections is common says Isaac Bogoch from the University of Toronto, who is an infectious disease specialist. If ivermectin is to be administered safely in patients, finding out quickly if they already have Onchocerca volvulus or Wuchereria bancrofti along with the L. loa parasite is imperative. By using the smartphone camera like a microscope, clinicians who are vaccinating people in the region are able to check blood samples easier and quicker than ever before.

Smartphone Microscope Attempts

Mobile phone microscope technology has come a long way with the invention of smartphones. They have appeared as vote winning science projects, and their use in public health environments has become a regular proposition among health professionals. In 2009, Daniel Fletcher already demonstrated that with a mobile phone microscope that had been designed by him and his team, they could identify the bacteria that causes the infectious bacterial disease tuberculosis 2. Mobile phone microscopes were also tested to look for infections caused by blood flukes.

Previous incarnations of the mobile phone microscope had been failure’s due to their basic approach at solving the problems of diagnosis. All they done was to magnify a specimen, but that specimen would first have to be collected, then smeared and dried on a slide. It would be easy to view on a microscope, but the complicated steps in between still had to be accomplished.

Lastest Smartphone Microscope

This latest revolution of the smartphone microscope is different from previous attempts. It simply requires loading a blood filled capillary onto a 3D printed plastic case that contains a lens. The plastic shell then slides over an iPhone and aligns the devices lens to the iPhone’s camera. There is an app called CellScope on the smartphone that takes a video of the blood that is magnified, and then uses an advanced algorithm to look for movements in the fluid sample that match the characteristics of L. loa. It is used around midday due to L. loa being active during this period, while the other 2 nematodes are not.

Daniel Fletcher has already hinted that the same type of device could be applied to other various parasitic infections. Researchers are already working on a method that will involve the smartphones software detecting soil transmitted helminths including whipworm and hookworm. Clinicians and doctors in the field are becoming more confident that basic consumer electronics can play a big role in healthcare and diagnosis. With all ideas though, they have to be demonstrated as working and the new smartphone microscope will begin testing on 40,000 people in South Africa later this year.

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