Diagnosing diseases the smart wayAnalytical chemist Basant Giri is working on a portable, cost-effective smartphone microscope.
A large box held several identical sample bottles, each one neatly labeled with information including the municipality and location of the collected vegetable samples inside them. “The target samples are the [vegetables] that are consumed uncooked,” said Analytical Chemist Basant Giri.
Giri explained that the samples were collected from the Eastern part of Nepal and were to be processed and observed through a microscope. However, he was not describing a regular microscope, but a smartphone modified to view microscopic substances. This portable, cost-effective technological intervention can allow for easy diagnosis of diseases in remote areas.
This smartphone microscope is Giri’s project under the Center for Analytical Sciences at Kathmandu Institute of Applied Sciences (KIAS). The institute was co-founded by Giri when he returned to Nepal after completing his doctorate in microfluidics at the University of Wyoming in 2014. It is an independent research institute, with print-outs of journal articles covering bulletin boards in every corner.
The Center prioritises point-of-need technology, mindful of the needs of low-income communities and countries. The development of the smartphone microscope is reflective of these efforts. The researchers at KIAS recognised that the detection of diarrhea-causing parasites currently requires expensive, bulky microscopes and trained experts. Hence, the smartphone microscope was developed to cater to the limitation of these resources in remote areas of Nepal.
At the current stage of research, vegetable samples are viewed to investigate the presence of giardia and cryptosporidium, two parasites that are major causes of diarrhea. In order to extract the potential parasites present in vegetables, the vegetables are cut up and immersed in a solution, after which they are sealed and put into a centrifuge machine. As the machine whirs, the solid and liquid separate. This prepares the solution for the viewing stage of the smartphone microscope technology.
The researchers at KIAS were able to transform a regular smartphone’s back camera into a microscope by using a sapphire ball lens for camera modification. “With the help of the ball lens, the camera can visualise micro-objects,” explained Giri. A drop of the sample is applied to a glass slide which can then be viewed through the modified back camera.
Tiny cysts or parasites could be magnified and observed on the phone screen. The student researchers at KIAS are being taught to point out and identify the type of observable parasites. “We are looking at the cysts of two parasites, responsible for causing diarrhoea. Diarrhoea is a leading cause of death in less developed countries, especially for children under the age of 5,” said Giri.
Currently, KIAS is partnering up with hospitals in regions including eastern Nepal and the Sudurpaschim province. “These hospitals will test the stool samples of their patients using our smartphone microscope and compare results with those of conventional microscopes,” said Giri. He elaborated on future plans for the technological intervention, hoping to incorporate 3D printing and artificial intelligence to make the technology more user-friendly and accurate.
These parasites are viewed using conventional, commercial microscopes. “These microscopes retail ranging from Rs200,000 to Rs1,000,000 depending on the equipment,” explained Giri. “But our smartphone microscope costs around maybe Rs10,000 to Rs20,000,” he added. Despite the price difference, Giri and his team have published journal articles, proving that the two microscopes are of comparable quality.
An additional advantage of smartphone microscopes is that, unlike conventional microscopes, they do not require a laptop or computer to visualize results. The smartphone itself visualizes the magnified object. Images and videos of this object can be captured, stored, and shared. “They consume almost no energy,” said Giri, adding one other benefit to using point-of-need technology in remote sites.
According to Giri, the ultimate goal of this project is to make the microscope accessible to communities in rural Nepal that can test vegetable, water, and stool samples for the presence of parasites. For this, Giri and his team are seeking partnerships and investors for the commercialization of the smartphone microscope. “Our next step is to get these technologies commercialized so that the people who actually need them can use them for their better health,” said Giri.