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Medical researchers have unveiled a new gadget that could be used by doctors in the developing world to diagnose diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.
The device, which attaches to a mobile phone, allows physicians to create a portable microscope that can be used to examine blood samples in the field and help spot some of the world's deadliest diseases.
Researchers at the University of California Berkeley say they hope the gadget would be deployed in areas where the cost of equipment and training currently prevents access to basic diagnostic tests.
While advanced medical imaging systems and computerised medical equipment remain the privilege of the rich, mobile phones are now ubiquitous – with recent figures suggesting that more there are more than 4bn mobile connections worldwide.
The CellScope microscope attachment clips on to an ordinary mobile phone and uses the built-in camera to process the images, allowing doctors to quickly screen for diseases including TB and sickle-cell. Doctors can perform complex high-resolution light microscopy on a blood or sputum sample placed on a slide.
In a paper published in the journal PLoS One, the team said that, although some of the tests would be more accurate or complete with higher-powered technology, they still proved adequate when performed on a standard Nokia N73 handset, which comes with a 3.2 megapixel camera.
"Sample evaluation could potentially be performed in real time while a patient is still in the presence of a healthcare worker, rather than requiring days or weeks," the paper says.
"Since we are developing a technology that makes the current and long-standing internationally accepted standards for disease screening in developing countries more portable, we anticipate that a relatively fast time to adoption by clinicians and health workers may be possible."
The team also suggest that extra features built into many mobile phones, such as GPS location data and internet connectivity, could be used to enhance the findings and make it easier for medics to spot outbreaks and coordinate their responses.