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Scanning Smartphone for Detecting Blood Parasites

Scanning Smartphone for Detecting Blood Parasites

Treating diseases in Africa is difficult enough without having to worry that the treatment itself is going to prove fatal for the patient. But this is often the case for treatment of river blindness and elephantiasis.

The best medication to treat these tropical diseases in Ivermectin, but with people with high levels of Loa loa worm, the drug can do the opposite to the desired effect.

Obviously, this means that patients need to be screened for the blood parasite before the medication can be administered for either of the two diseases. The problem with screening these patients is that it is such a long, drawn-out process.

First off, a sample of the patient’s blood is drawn, and sent to the lab. Here, healthcare workers need to be skilled at analysing the blood by eye, to see if there are any moving parasites in the sample. They then have to determine how many parasites are in the blood.

Testing is both time-consuming and requires laboratory equipment that might not be readily available. And, unfortunately, the risks of the treatment are so high, it’s been suspended.

This is where the good news comes in, with an international team of researchers. The team hails from the US’ University of California Berkeley and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, alongside the University of Montpellier in France and Cameroon’s University of Yaound√©.

The team have devised a system using a smartphone that will allow it to automatically detect parasites inside blood samples. The system is called CellScope and analyses a sample of the patient’s blood in a box attached to a smartphone.

The phone loads up when the box is loaded and then automatically starts analysing the sample for any movement that would indicate the presence of the Loa loa worm. The system then predicts the number of parasites in the patient’s blood and relays it back to the user. If the number is low enough, the patient is eligible for treatment and they are able to receive the medication.

The software has been tested in small trials in Cameroon, and the team has published their results in Science Translational Medicine, with further trials planned for 40,000 more people.

“With one touch of the screen, the device moves the sample, captures video, and automatically analyses the images,” described Professor Daniel Fletcher, senior author of the paper.

Professor Fletcher explained that he was excited about this new approach to dealing with what he called “low-tech problems”. He said that although there are drugs to treat many tropical diseases, there wasn’t the technology to identify the people who could receive these treatments.

And now there is!


Image source: UC Berkeley

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