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How Cell Phone-Powered Labs Could Transform Medical Diagnostics in Africa

A social enterprise's invention could transform medical diagnostics in the developing world.

How Cell Phone-Powered Labs Could Transform Medical Diagnostics in Africa

Rural clinics in Africa have a huge problem: Medical diagnostic equipment is expensive. For instance, CD4-count machines, which determine the suitability of HIV — positive patients for antiretroviral treatment, cost around $20,000. But an ambitious cohort of social innovators are working to replace such machines with simple, affordable technology.

At the forefront of this emerging sector is the D.C. — based social venture FrontlineSMS:Medic. Its innovation uses a fledgling technology called LUCAS (very short for lens-less, ultra-wide-field cell-monitoring array platform that's based on shadow imaging), developed by UCLA professor Aydogan Ozcan. The hologram-based system uses equipment small enough to attach to mobile phones (see diagram above). When a health worker captures and sends in an image of a blood sample, Frontline's software compares it to a global database and returns a diagnosis within minutes, all for the cost of two multimedia messages. The system handles blood-borne microbial ailments like malaria but eventually could tackle more-complex diagnostics such as CD4 counts. That would threaten firms such as BD Diagnostics and PointCare, which sell expensive machines and proprietary testing tools.

LUCAS inventor Ozcan says these companies are often "very slow at adapting new technologies," but they could see the threat as opportunity. Partnering with firms such as Frontline could radically expand global access to medical-tech innovations — and open new markets for them as well.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.