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16th February 2017

Young Turk revolutionizes diagnostics with smartphone imaging

Getting sick is no fun anywhere, but relief is close at hand in the industrialized world. Lab results come within hours, diagnosis is quick, treatment is prescribed.

For sick people in remote villages around the globe, though, the story is completely different. The nearest lab might require a journey of many days. Aydogan Ozcan would like to put a modern diagnostics lab into every corner of the world by turning ordinary smartphones into low-cost but high-powered microscopes.

Billions of people have smartphones, notes Ozcan. Why not seize the opportunity? By melding computational analysis with advanced imagery, he tells This Is MedTech, smartphones can become affordable mini-labs, disrupting global health care in the way that the PC and Internet transformed other fields.

Ozcan has the know-how to work for big changes. He earned an M.S. and PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University and worked at Harvard Medical School researching biomedical optics. Ten years ago, he joined UCLA, which pours $1 billion into research each year, luring bright scientists from all over to work under the California sun. Soon, Ozcan’s lab began producing a whirl of breakthroughs, research papers, patents, presentations, awards, and collaborative projects.

With 3D-printers, the researchers make simple slide-on devices that transform smartphones into powerhouses capable of using advanced techniques such as digital holography and DNA sequencing. It’s a future that is just beginning to take shape. To commercialize the projects, Ozcan has co-founded a private company. Twenty patents are awaiting approval.

Because commercialization is still in the early stages and experimentation is continuing, it’s difficult to say how expensive the technology will be. It’s estimated, though, that the price tag for the microscope attachments would be in the hundreds of dollars, in contrast to the bulky high-end lab microscopes that can cost tens of thousands.

In studies and field projects, smartphone-based microscopes from Ozcan’s UCLA team of tech geniuses are diagnosing everything from parasites to cancer. To be sure, making diagnosis available solves only part the problem of global health care. Patients still need treatment.

Still, putting a diagnostics lab in the pocket brings universal health care a huge step closer.