Pathologists will soon have multiple low-cost devices that allow their smartphones and notebook computers to function as microscopes

Microscopy is going mobile and becoming accessible to people beyond pathologists. Researchers and entrepreneurs have invented lenses to transform smartphones and tablets into flat microscopes.

Researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, (ANU) have developed an optical lens that can be combined with a smartphone camera to create a microscope for diagnosing skin cancer, reported Physics World in a story published this spring.

Other mobile microscope products have gone to market over the past year. They vary in purpose, magnification strength, and cost. But they have one thing in common: they all fit in a pocket or a flat case and are relatively inexpensive.

Microscopy Devices Not Designed for Use in Medical Laboratories

Such devices are not cleared for clinical use. But pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals are likely to be intrigued by how fast smartphone and tablet technology is evolving. A smartphone turned camera is one thing. But conversion to a pocket-sized microscope is an entirely new function for smartphones.

Furthermore, recent innovations in mobile microscopy—like the one at ANU—may give doctors and medical laboratory professionals in developing countries access to diagnostic capabilities otherwise unavailable to them and their patients.

Researchers’ Unplanned Optical Lens Can Turn Smartphone to Microscope

One twist to this story is that the Australian team actually invented the new optical lens while doing something else. While trying to synthesize polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a silicone polymer, the researchers noticed that it hardened overnight into lens-like shapes. They describe their lens-shaping methodology in an article published by Biomedical Optics Express, a publication of the Optical Society. PDMS is the same unbreakable material used in contact lenses.

“We discovered that we can reach a magnifying power of up to 160x with an imaging resolution of four micrometers,” said lead researcher Steve Lee, Ph.D., of ANU’s Research School of Engineering. He was quoted in an article posted on the university’s website. The lens is powerful enough to image individual biological cells, Lee told Physics World. 

Frame for the Lens Can Be Made with a 3-D Printer

To pair the lens with smartphone apps, researchers designed a 3-D printable frame that holds the lens, along with a couple of miniature light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and a coin-sized battery, ANU reported.

Steve Lee, Ph.D., of Australian National University, is shown above with his research team’s optical lens that can transform smartphones to medical imaging tools. It is “a cheap way of turning a smartphone into a high-resolution microscope and can open the door to a revolution in science and medicine in developing countries,” the university news story said. (Photo copyright by ANU.)

Steve Lee, Ph.D., of Australian National University, is shown above with his research team’s optical lens that can transform smartphones to medical imaging tools. It is “a cheap way of turning a smartphone into a high-resolution microscope and can open the door to a revolution in science and medicine in developing countries,” the university news story said. (Photo copyright by ANU.)

The device can be pointed at a patient’s skin lesion to take photos for transmission to an expert for analysis, Physics World reported. Still another possible application is photographing fungus or insects on crops. Farmers may upload the images for expert analysis of these problems.

Because it works with smartphone technology, portable microscopy has a propensity to grow, according to Time magazine. “Worldwide approximately one in five people own a smartphone; therefore, innovations that use them as a platform—like Dr. Lee’s lenses—can have a commensurately immense global impact, potentially saving lives in the process,” reported Time in its story about the ANU mobile microscope.

Entrepreneurs Introduce Microscopes for Portable Devices

Other optics manufacturers and entrepreneurs are bringing their own versions of mobile microscopy to the consumer market. For example, Bodelin said on its website that its ProScope Micro Mobile is the “first professional microscope for mobile devices.” The Oregon-based optics manufacturer launched its microscope about one year ago, reported CNET in a recent story.

Bodelin’s device mounts to most Apple iOS devices with a nylon/ABS sleeve. The sleeve holds the lens over the smartphone camera lens and offers 20x to 80x magnification. Powered by a lithium-ion battery, the microscope has LEDs around its lens to illuminate the object under study, CNET said. Bodelin sells the ProScope Micro Mobile for $149. It said the professional-level magnification is possible with the use of “superb glass optics and precision design.”

Company in Washington State Develops a Similar Smartphone Microscope

Still another version of mobile microscopy comes from Micro Phone Lens, an Olympia, Wash.-based company that also started sales in 2013.

A University of Washington alumnus developed a magnification lens that turns a tablet or smartphone into a hand-held microscope, noted a story published by TechTimes.

“A microscope is a tool you can do thousands of different things with, and by making it cheaper, portable, and able to take pictures, you open so many different possibilities that weren’t available before,” stated Micro Phone Lens’ innovator, Thomas Larson, in the Tech Times story.

The Micro Phone Lens provides 15x magnification for any model smartphone or tablet. It is made from soft plastic and sticks to a phone lens without adhesives, according to the company’s website. It is priced at $14.99 including shipping. Another option with greater magnification is briefly described on the site and priced at $49.99.

Can Pathologists Make Their Own Smartphone Microscopes?

It’s also possible to do it yourself.

People can transform their iPhones into microscopes by simply affixing a  tiny battery-powered dual-LED unit available on Amazon for $12.95, according to CNET in a recent story.

Instructables has another idea. It shows how to transform a smartphone into a high-power digital microscope for $10 on its website.

In this version, a laser pointer’s focus lens serves as the magnification device (use two for greater magnification). Also needed is an LED click light. The website shares steps for building a stand to hold the digital microscope—just like the ones used in “actual laboratory settings.”

Demonstration of How Diagnostic Technology Is Advancing

Clearly, digital microscope solutions that use smartphones vary in power and potential. But it’s important for pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals to note the range of available products and to acknowledge the growing interest in microscopy among the general population.

Most important, smartphone-based microscopes—like the one created by the Australian researchers—will inevitably be used to care for patients in developing countries and remote areas where more expensive diagnostic technology is unaffordable. This would allow pathologists and medical laboratory professionals in these countries to provide a higher level of care.

—By Donna Marie Pocius

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