The CellScope got its start when Fletcher, a bioengineer at the University of California at Berkeley, gave his undergrads an assignment to build an all-in-one cameraphone-microscope that would facilitate mobile diagnosis. “I was walking down a hallway and wondering: How can I convince my students that optics is worth learning?” Fletcher recalls. Since the camera they were using was just a basic cellphone model, finding microscope components that lined up with the mass-market point-and-shoot lens required months of testing. With the right equipment in place, the final device can now take focused pictures at up to 50x magnification, enough to see red blood cells and the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria. Besides malaria, modified versions of the scope can diagnose tuberculosis, skin conditions, dangerous insect bites and abnormal mole growth.
One of Fletcher’s students, Erik Douglas, recently traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to put the scope through some real-world paces. “We’ve gotten positive reactions from the doctors so far,” Fletcher says. He and his students plan to build smaller prototypes with custom lenses—all, he says, with an eye toward commercialization and widespread use. He thinks the scope could even be a hit with EMTs and health-care workers in the U.S. “With mobile devices like this, home health aides could start to provide diagnostic services, and they could also take pictures over time to show doctors whether a patient is getting better. We’ve got an opportunity to leapfrog some of the costs of health care.”—Elizabeth Svoboda