Aydogan Ozcan's "Killer App": The Lens-free Cellphone Microscope

In tech-speak, the term "killer app" is used to refer to any program, software, or add-on functionality that is so useful and valuable that it can improve the value and worth of the platform that it was made to run on. In other words, a killer app is the motherload of all apps in the industry and Aydogan Ozcan might have just come up with one that can revolutionize healthcare and disease detection.

Ozcan's lens-free cellphone microscope is the result of a project that was aimed at finding ways to improve the detection of diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.

The goal was to develop a lightweight, compact, and cost-effective device that could replace hi-tech optical microscopes that are not only bulky but also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit.

Ozcan's invention utilizes the silicon sensor found in cellphone cameras which only costs around $5 to $10. LUCAS (Lenseless, Ultra-wide-field Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging) is comprised of an LED light, a spatial filter, and a slot for a medical slide. It attaches onto the back of a standard cellphone minus the lens and functions by passing light through the slide sample to create shadow images that are captured by the phone's camera sensor positioned below it.

The image obtained is actually a fuzzy-looking hologram which is then deciphered by computers equipped with specially-designed software to translate the interference patterns into data that can be read and interpreted by medical staff.

Ozcan's lens-free cellphone camera will be tested on the field in the later part of 2011 thanks to the backing of the US National Institute of Health. The first trials will use the device to screen for malaria in Brazil. With proper financial backing, Ozcan hopes to have the camera ready for the market in 18 to 24 months.

Aydogan Ozcan is an associate professor of electrical engineering and heads his own research group in the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). This research has earned Ozcan numerous awards including the 2011 International Society for Optics and Photonics Early Career Achievement Award and the backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.