Inside the Technology That Can Turn Your Smartphone into a Personal Doctor

The fantastic tricorder device that “Bones” used to scan aliens on “Star Trek” is nearly at hand—in your cellphone

Ozcan (in his UCLA lab) started a company, Holomic, to market microscope-outfitted smartphones, which he calls “a telemedicine tool” for improving health care in the developing world. (Brinson + Banks )
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Point-of-care, or on-the-spot, diagnosis is of distinct benefit to migrant workers and people in isolated villages. By the time health workers learn the results of a lab test, they may no longer know where to find the patient, who then goes without care. “The single greatest advantage [of Ozcan’s devices] is how quickly the information can be shared with experts and decision makers across a wider swath of geography,” says Anurag Mairal, a program leader at PATH, a Seattle nonprofit that fosters tech innovation in global public health.

One of Ozcan’s most promising inventions is a universal reader of rapid diagnostic tests: chemically treated strips, like a home pregnancy test, that reveal a line if a blood, saliva or urine sample is positive for malaria, HIV or, say, heart trouble. People can and do eyeball such tests. But because Ozcan’s reader “sees” the line more sharply than the human eye, it can answer not just “Am I sick?” but also “How sick am I?” From nuances in the shading of the “positive” line on a rapid blood test for prostate cancer risk, for example, his apps can glean a relatively precise count of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, concentrations in blood.

How popular the devices will prove to be in the real world remains to be seen. When one of Ozcan’s students took a lens-free microscope to a health clinic in the Brazilian Amazon in 2011, the technology worked well—but local feelings were mixed. The student, Onur Mudanyali, now the PhD-bearing director of research at Holomic, told me that some clinic workers viewed it as a job threat. But in nearby dorms for visiting researchers, people were more encouraging. “They were delighted that one day they would have a backpack of tools like these [to] visit villages and diagnose in the field.”

The doctor who arranged Mudanyali’s visit was Karin Nielsen, a distinguished UCLA professor of pediatric infectious diseases who frequently works in South America and Africa. When I stopped in her office after seeing Ozcan, she showed me a photograph she’d taken of a ramshackle houseboat on the Solimões River, near the Amazonian capital of Manaus. “Our next step would be to go to areas like this,” she said. Inhabitants of these boats—known as the população ribeirinha—rarely visit clinics, so health workers pull up alongside in “boat hospitals” and do medicine midstream. She says Ozcan’s devices “would likely double if not triple the number of people who get diagnosed.”

While she and Ozcan await funding for more overseas fieldwork, his start-up has set its sights closer to home. The U.S. Army is paying Holomic to investigate how soldiers might use smartphone add-ons as monitors of personal health and bioterror. There’s also a long list of potential civilian uses, from hand-held forensic analysis and animal disease monitoring to anti-counterfeiting (identifying microscopic seals of authenticity) and home fertility testing. One of his devices, a lens-free 3-D video microscope, recently mapped the never-before-seen helical swimming patterns of sperm cells.

FDA approval could come as early as this year for what would be Ozcan’s first commercially available medical device, a smartphone reader of rapid blood tests for hypothyroidism, a common disorder of the thyroid gland. (The test measures levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone.)

Sharon Cunningham, the president of ThyroMetrix, which will market the reader, sees in gadgets like Ozcan’s a revolution in the cost and convenience of routine medical testing. “Walmart? MinuteClinic? Do you think they’ll want to send stuff off to labs?” she says. “No, they’ll be standing there scanning you. And they’ll be using something like this. And you’ll pay for it and be happy about it because you’re not waiting all day for results.”

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