Smartphones are about to get a whole lot smarter. Seeing how smartphone cameras could reproduce exceptional images comparable to microscopes in a lab, a group of scientists from Sweden and the United States went to work. They recently created a lightweight microscope with a lens that clips to a smartphone, specifically the Nokia Lumia 1020, which has a 38-megapixel camera, but it could be used on any smartphone. To use it, you place a tissue sample in a container and use the smartphone microscope to capture images of the sample. Then, an algorithm analyzes the images to sequence the DNA. Mutations and other molecules of interest glow like fireflies thanks to the fluorescence tagging that the scientists built into a microscope.
The implications of the device are impressive. The creators designed the ultra-portable microscope so that a scientist away from a hospital could diagnose cancer and other diseases. The DNA in a cell is basically that cell’s marching orders; it tells the cell what it’s supposed to do or not do. Incorrect orders – DNA mutations – happen all the time, and usually the body can correct it, but not every time. When the DNA is mutated, the cell begins to behave in a way it’s not supposed to, like multiplying erratically. This multiplication is what causes cancer. DNA mutations can be caused by behavior like smoking, UV radiation, and aging, or passed on genetically from parent to child. That type of cancer is called “inherited” or “germline,” and is less common.
Known as “molecular diagnostics,” the process of identifying cell mutations that lead to serious illness is often restricted to labs and hospitals, but not anymore! The microscope is also notable because of how cheaply they can be produced. The team is thinking they could make their microscopes for $500 or less. This accessibility could dramatically change cancer detection for rural and poor areas.