Photograph by Phil Channing
Aydogan Ozcan has the Ph.D., the expertise, and the engineering acumen to perfect the world’s most complex medical diagnostic technology. Instead, he’s solving global health issues—with a cell phone.
His UCLA research team has invented a way to turn common cell phones, already in the hands of four billion people worldwide, into imaging tools that will bring accurate medical diagnoses to the most remote, resource-poor corners of the planet.
“Very few of the great technologies we play with in advanced countries can actually be applied in developing parts of the world,” he points out. “You can’t even assume there will be consistent electricity in rural clinics or villages. Because the infrastructure gap is so huge, we aren’t delivering our best thinking to the people who need it most. I find that very disturbing.”
To demonstrate the gap, Ozcan points to sophisticated $100,000 blood count analyzers found in advanced labs. He feels they are already so state of the art that any improvements will be merely incremental. But in developing nations, even basic technology can be transformative. “Since there’s virtually nothing there to start with, it’s much easier to make a huge impact, quickly.”
In many rural villages, patients remain untreated until mobile units reach them. Even then, tools are woefully inadequate. “You can’t afford to take hundreds of blood samples, transport them to a hospital, then return with results,” he explains. “Many diseases remain entirely missed; people are dying from simple infections that could be easily treated if only they were diagnosed.”
Conventional microscopes, the mainstay of diagnosis for centuries, are impractical on a global level. “They are too heavy and powerful to be cost-effectively miniaturized. They also can’t quickly capture and screen the large number of cells needed for statistically viable diagnoses,” he says.
What’s more, because technicians in remote areas may be poorly trained, they often interpret images inaccurately. “In some parts of Africa, 70 percent of malaria diagnoses are incorrect false-positives.”
These constraints convinced Ozcan that rather than inventing another new ultrahigh-performance tool, we need to think like engineers: “Who’s going to use it and how much can I spend?” This mindset led him directly to cell phones.
“Here’s this extremely inexpensive, yet advanced, technology that’s in use almost everywhere. It presents an obvious opportunity that can be leveraged to benefit health environments where cost drives everything," he says. "So that’s what we’re doing—creating digital technologies that replace microscopes and enable cell phones to make diagnostic decisions, even in a distant desert village.”
Ozcan’s invention solves the dilemma of poorly trained technicians by arming the phones with sophisticated algorithms that do the interpreting. To tackle the most expensive part of microscopes—lenses—his team simply eliminated them.
“With our lens-free imaging platform, instead of detecting the cell, we detect its shadow,” he explains. “When you shine light on a cell, it casts a shadow from which we can reconstruct the cell image, perform advanced processing, and detect signatures of disease. We’re able to do this because unlike flat, dark, human shadows, the shadows of cells are semitransparent, very textured, and contain specific fingerprints.”
Ozcan’s modified phone uses a special light source and the phone’s camera to capture an image of a blood sample, essentially turning the phone into a lens-free microscope. “It’s lightweight, instantly shows us huge numbers of cells, and fits into the palm of your hand.”
Field tests slated to begin this year will distribute hundreds of the devices to mobile health units in rural Africa with a focus on diagnosing malaria. A central, inexpensive PC station will be installed in a hospital. Mobile health workers will collect blood, load images of the samples into the modified phones, and transmit them to the PC station via the Internet. Within minutes, the data will be processed and a summary diagnosis sent back into the field. Records will also be stored, creating an unprecedented database of global disease statistics.
“Treating malaria is actually very simple,” Ozcan notes, “What’s been lacking is the diagnosis.” Using the devices to analyze blood and other bodily fluids will also be crucial in detecting tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other conditions. Additionally, wireless telemedicine platforms can be a much needed breakthrough in monitoring patients. “Today, HIV doesn’t have to be deadly. If patients are monitored regularly it can be controlled. The ability to easily, frequently check patients would allow us to treat HIV like diabetes, saving so many lives.”
The future, Ozcan believes, lies not only in new technologies, but in innovative applications of existing technologies. Blending an engineer’s discipline and a social entrepreneur’s heart, he predicts, “That’s what will transform global health care in powerful, practical ways we’ve never before imagined.”
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