Your Smartphone Could Help Fight Disease

09/30/2013 07:16 EDT | Updated 11/30/2013 05:12 EST

For the majority of history, germs were an unknown entity. Their effects, from fermentation to illness were known, and yet no one exactly knew the cause. Then, nearly 350 years ago, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, a one-time draper, looked through a flat lens made of ground glass and saw for the very first time the microscopic world. Since then, scientists have been finding ways to improve upon his achievement, now known as microscopy, to better see and understand what happens in the unseen world.

The microscope has always been a microbiologist's best friend and is a hallmark of any laboratory. But over the last few decades, as the cost of making microscopes declined, the microscope started to appear outside of the professional environment. Today, an assortment of microscopes can be found in science-themed stores all over the world and online. They are far less powerful than the ones found in modern laboratories but their use has helped to keep us aware of the microbial world

Now there may be the opportunity to see what the scientists see with a new and potentially revolutionary concept in microscopy. Through the use of a common smartphone, we may be even closer to germs than ever, with the ability to not only see them, but also help researchers and medical professionals with applications ranging from disease diagnostics to helping in the fight against global health threats such as malaria.

The premise behind most smartphone microscopes is relatively straightforward. Most models come with an optical package, including a lens, a light and an internal optical sensor. They also have zoom technology but it is rather weak, only magnifying the size of an object up to 10 times greater - represented by 10X. But a microscope usually starts at 20X greater magnification. The simplest smartphone microscopes are nothing more than a magnifying attachment that increases the magnification to 60X and even 100X. These levels can visualize bacteria, fungi and parasites, albeit they would still look like small dots.

Then in 2011, a team from the University of California Davis published a paper in which they increased magnification significantly, to 350X. Their method harkened back to that of van Leeuwenhoek in that the only modification was the attachment of a ground glass lens. This time, though, it was a ball. This minor change improved the technology and yet kept it simple and cost-effective. Anyone with an interest in microscopy could satisfy their passion with a smartphone.

But while 350X was adequate for many microbial species, there was one particular biological entity that could still evade the watching eye of the smartphone. Viruses, such as influenza and norovirus, require a minimum of 1,000X in order to be seen. Most laboratory microscopes are unable to visualize them and most images of these microbes come from what is known as electron microscopy, which can have up to a 200,000X magnification. This hurdle has become a significant problem for researchers - and for enthusiasts - for two reasons. Electron microscopes are fairly large and bulky. The smallest is about the same size as a desktop tower computer, although many older generations require dedicated rooms for their operation. But the real problem is the cost, which is far more than most could afford.

This week, thanks to a team from the University of California Los Angeles, even viruses may one day be part of your Instagram collection. They published an article outlining the development of a smartphone attachment that can increase the magnification of the camera to well over 1,000X - enough to see viruses. The technology is a little more complicated than the ball lens and some sample preparation is required before the viruses can be seen. But the results are significant enough that it's well worth understanding the process and the effort.

The virus must first be exposed to a solution containing an antibody. Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins with three major sticky regions. The top two areas of the Y-shape attach to the virus. The third region attaches to a chemical known as a fluorophore. When the sample is washed to clean it for the microscope, the antibody and fluorophore stay put. The sample is then put into the microscope, which looks more like an iPhone cradle, and attached to the phone. Then the magic happens.

On the inside, there is a laser diode specifically designed to shine blue light on the sample. When that light comes into contact with the fluorophore, light of a different colour is emitted, in this case, green. This is known as fluorescence. The green light is then magnified by lenses inside the attachment before entering the smartphone. The result is an image that may appear to be nothing more than colourful speckles on the screen but each one of those dots represents a virus.

While the work required for visualizing the virus may be a little too much for some amateur microscopy enthusiasts, there is significant potential for this technology, particularly in the realm of public health. The ability to identify potential epidemics as they happen anywhere in the world could help us dramatically improve response efforts. For doctors, the ability to diagnose a cold virus could help prevent the unnecessary prescribing of ineffective antibiotics. Outside of medicine, this device could improve science education both in and out of the school environment by showing students the presence of viruses in real time.

Microscopy has made great strides over the centuries and we have been given even more opportunities to get to know germs up close. The advancements are expected to continue at an even faster pace giving us the potential to one day forgo the lab in order to see microbes. While microscopy apps may never be as popular as one involving Minions, they will no doubt help those of us who want to better understand these tiny creatures as well as the role and impact they have on our lives.


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