Pathologists take note: device created with off-the-shelf parts rivals accuracy of $40,000 model!


Pathologists know the engineering complexity and expense of today’s state-of-the-art fluorescence microscopes. Now comes news that a Rice University biomedical engineering student has developed a portable, battery-operated bright field and fluorescence microscope that rivals the performance of reference-standard devices retailing for as much as $40,000!

The student, Andrew Miller, developed the 2.5-pound microscope as part of his senior project in 2009, working with faculty in Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies. Miller’s project was intended to develop diagnostic tools for underdeveloped countries. He calls his instrument the “Global Focus microscope,” Remarkably, he built it using off-the-shelf parts that cost just $240. The light required to power the 1,000-times magnification microscope comes from a top-mounted LED flashlight.

Andrew Miller's microscope prototype

Andrew Miller holds his prototype of the bright field and fluorescent microscope he constructed for $240 worth of off-the-shelf materials. (Photo by Rice University.)

Dark Daily has regularly briefed pathologists and clinical laboratory managers about these innovative applications of next-generation technologies. The Global Focus fluorescence microscope is just one example of the recent trend toward smaller, more portable devices for medical diagnostics, driven specifically by the need to serve third-world medical situations with inexpensive solutions.

From point-of-care laboratory testing devices saving cardiac patients in rural Australia to mobile molecular diagnostics labs created to detect avian flu in African cattle, technology is rapidly evolving toward smaller, cheaper more mobile devices.

Miller’s Global Focus fluorescence microscope is especially remarkable because of its huge leap forward in affordability, costing just a fraction of 1% of its rival!

To test the effectiveness of the Global Focus fluorescence microscope, inventor Miller worked with The Methodist Hospital Research Institute (TMHRI) to test the device against the institute’s reference-standard fluorescence microscope. Miller and the TMHRI researchers analyzed smear samples from 19 patients suspected of having tuberculosis (TB). The Global Focus microscope performed as well as the institute’s microscope in 98.4% samples tested.

“This is hugely significant as a point-of-care tool clinicians can use for tuberculosis patients, whether they’re in Asia or Africa or even in West Texas,” declared Edward A. Graviss, Ph.D., director of the TMHRI Molecular Tuberculosis Laboratory. “The first identification of TB is usually made with a smear, and it will be good to know that in the field, instead of having to wait three or four days to get the smear to a lab.

“The idea was to compare a field-grade type microscope with what we see in a standard TB laboratory, such as what we have at Methodist,” continued Graviss. “When we compared the results between the two microscopes, there was no significant difference. The quality is there, and you’re not going to miss anything by using one of these [Miller’s] point-of-care microscopes.”

Andrew Miller’s design prototype

Here is a production prototype based on Andrew Miller’s design for a cheap and robust bright field and fluorescent microscope. This is designed for field use in developing countries to diagnose TB from smears collected in point-of-care settings. (Photo by Rice University.)

A new team of Rice students is developing software that will help untrained clinicians to diagnose tuberculosis in the field through image processing on a smart phone, perhaps as an iPhone application.

Miller, who now works for a San Francisco company that makes ventricular assist devices, won the Hershel M. Rich Invention Award for his design. The award is presented annually by Rice Engineering Alumni to a Rice faculty member or student who has developed an original invention. It was the first undergraduate project to win the award.

Miller and Rice University have contracted with a medical device consultant, 3rd Stone Design, to produce 20 of these point-of-care fluorescence microscopes that will be ready for field-testing in September.

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers should continue to track more technology advancements like this in the near future. When a college engineering student can pull current technology off the shelf and create a cheap and robust point-of-care diagnostic testing device with advanced capabilities, it provides a powerful demonstration of how emerging technologies are poised to transform laboratory testing and in vitro diagnostics (IVD).

Similarly, at some point the world’s biggest IVD manufacturers will begin to apply their intellectual property and IVD expertise to designing simpler, cheaper clinical pathology testing devices. Their goal will be to pursue the growing demand for healthcare in developing countries.

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