Smartphone cameras can do so much more than capture selfies. They can detect everything from an ear infection to cervical cancer.
mHealth has been fixated on SMS-based applications. Using texts, health workers catalog data and communicate with each other. But, another breed of entrepreneurs have been tinkering with smartphone cameras, developing attachments that screen for cataracts, diabetes, cancer, and infections. They’re testing them in developing countries to see if health workers, empowered with smartphones, can help diagnose patients remotely.
“As soon as cameras started appearing on phones, I began wondering how they differ from the scientific cameras that we use in lab and whether they could be converted into microscopes,” says Daniel Fletcher, a professor of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley. Fletcher went on to develop a semester project for his students. The goal? To design amobile phone microscope.
That research flourished into a startup, CellScope, which has redesigned the otoscope- the tool doctors have long used to peek into your ear canals. This updated version, nicknamed Oto, attaches onto an iPhone, generating an image of the ear. It’s not just for doctors: parents, school nurses, and caretakers can use it for a quick read of a child’s ear. And it’s not limited to tech-friendly households in the Bay Area. Given that most children suffer from an ear infection before they reach seven years of age, it’s targeted for a global audience. One caveat, though. It’s been designed with the iPhone, which is unlikely to be in the hands of health workers globally.
While Fletcher and his students are foraying into other applications of the mobile microscope, such as examining your skin or testing for malaria and Tb, MIT’s Ramesh Raskar has become known as the ‘Eye Guy.’ As the head of the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture research, Raskar surfaced first in 2011 with a mobile tool for doing eye exams in developing countries – EyeNetra. EyeNetra was prototyped at MIT but went on to become a commercial startup, backed by Khosla Ventures. The company, and its investors, however, declined to comment on the status of the company, its reach, and the price point of EyeNetra.
Two years later, the Indian-born scientist produced another camera-based diagnostic tool, EyeMITRA (MITRA: Mobile Retinal Imagining and Predictive Analytics). This one, he argues, has the capacity to do much more than just fit you for glasses. A quick glance through the attachment, placed on the camera lens of a smartphone, can detect diabetes – one of the leading causes of blindness globally. Destined to be $20 to $50 per piece, he says, EyeMITRA is geared towards developing countries.
For Raskar, technology needs to be low-cost and accessible. As a scientist and a self-professed “world citizen,” he says, “it’s our responsibility to create tools that have impact.”
“A doctor can save a life at a time. As a technologist, we can save tens of lives at a time with what we create.”
The Israeli startup, MobileOCT is doing just that, aspiring to help the nearly 500,000 women around the world who are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. They’ve transformed a smartphone camera into a mobile colposcope marked at $400 (compared to $10,000 for a traditional testing device). Bruce Kahn of Scripps Clinic in San Diego, a partner for MobileOCT, says that the device could replace pap smears. It’s not merely for developing countries but for women globally.
At Stanford’s Prakash Lab, not too far from Fletcher’s cohort, Manu Prakash, a Bioengineering professor, and his students have developed another smartphone-based health tool: OScan. Designed at two different price points, for developing and developed countries, OScan performs a scan of the oral cavity, using a smartphone camera and an attachment. Prakash is an an advocate of frugal science, which he defines as “bringing scientific capabilities outside the lab and into the field.” OScan will be tested in the US, India, and Botswana in clinical settings and non-traditional posts, such as a tobacco shop, he says.
Much like Raskar, Prakash’s foray into science stems from an upbringing in India that exposed him to health inequities, financial limits, and simply different behavioral patterns. For instance, Prakash’s friends and classmates often chewed tobacco, starting at an early age. With little dental care, and prolonged use, that damages the oral cavity. Prakash explored the issue further, seeking a solution.
“I went and visited several clinics and screening centers in India to understand how they uncover patients– and was shocked to meet patients who show up so late that they have no options, with very little success rates for these surgeries,” he recalls.
While these smartphone-based innovations are quickly catching on, Prakash says they still have some hurdles to overcome, including closed APIs and limited specs. “Many parts used in smartphones are not available to be implemented in other applications. This closed approach hurts applications in new areas.”
Fletcher also recognizes the challenges with smartphone parts. “The lens is designed for conventional photography, not microscopy. The optical performance could be improved if the lenses we add to covert the phone into a microscope were designed together with the camera lenses,” he says.
Plus, it’s not as simple as developing technologies and dumping them into new hands, Prakash argues.
“Too many times, we think technology, specially smartphones, is the answer. I strongly believe it’s a story that’s skewed. It’s people who provide health care and we need to enable tools to give them capabilities in the field.”
Raskar is trying to get closer to grassroots innovations. He’s developed a collaboration with the Hyderabad-based LV Prasad Eye Institute to help local students engineer new solutions for better eye care. Inventions with commercial viability will get support from the mentors, he says, and intellectual property rights will be provided to the inventor. Raskar calls it “designing in context.”
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