Detecting deadly parasites in your blood? Scientists say there's an app for that

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If you live in Africa, parasitic worms and mosquitos are some of your worst enemies. Together, they infect millions of people, causing horrible diseases like river blindness or conditions like elephantiasis. But now, there's hope that a smartphone-based microscope could help detect them early.


Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases developed a portable microscope that can scan patients' blood for one common parasite — the Loa Loa worm — using motion detection. The Loa Loa worm is particularly dangerous, since parasite hosts who are co-infected with Loa Loa aren't able to take ivermectim, a strong and effective anti-parasite drug, without experiencing severe, life-threatening side effects.

The new tool, which is described in a paper published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine, could help health workers determine if a person is Loa Loa-positive — and therefore, which medicines they're safely able to take — in rural areas, where access to a lab is limited, if not non-existent.

The tool is controlled through an app, so operating it doesn't really require much training. After placing a small sample of blood into the device, all a health worker has to do, according to the researchers, is tap an app on a smartphone to start recording video. If there are Loa Loa worms in the patient's blood, an algorithm analyzes their movement in the video. The software then automatically generates a worm count, which is displayed on the screen. The process takes about two minutes.

For the study, the team tested their smartphone microscope in Cameroon on 33 potentially Loa Loa-infected patients. According to the study, researchers found that the smartphone was as good at detecting Loa Loa as doing manual counts — a much slower process that requires a light microscope.

"This is the first device that combines the imaging technology with hardware and software automation to create a complete diagnostic solution," said Daniel Fletcher, a UC Berkeley bioengineer and one of the authors of the study, in a statement. "The video CellScope provides accurate, fast results that enable health workers to make potentially life-saving treatment decisions in the field."

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This isn't the first time scientists have tried to use mobile devices to diagnose diseases. Scientists at MIT are working on fast-diagnostic tests for infectious diseases like ebola, dengue and yellow fever that also make use of an app to read the results. And while most of these technologies are still relatively new and still far from widespread implementation, they're another step toward high-tech solutions for some of the developing world's biggest health crises.

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.