Superphones Spot Infant Brain Injuries, Diagnose Malaria, Zap Mosquitoes

A new set of $100,000 grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a range of mobile phone applications in an effort to improve global health.

mosquito sculpture


The latest projects funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could turn smartphones into superphones that are part doctor, part secretary, part Orkin man.

The Gates’ Grand Challenges Exploration has previously given $100,000 grants to early-stage research focused on urgent health problems and come up with some amazing ideas for treatment. Here are a few of the most promising current projects.

Fighting Malaria

Three different projects harness the power of mobile phones to diagnose malaria. Teams led by Alberto Bilenca of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, Ionita Ghiran of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, and the University of Glasgow’s Michael Barrett are running concurrent tests to see how mobile phones could be used to find the deadly disease. The Israeli project uses a mobile phone camera equipped with a polarized laser pointer to create images of hemozoin crystals in fingertip blood–a near strong indicator of malaria infection. Meanwhile, the Scottish and American scientists want to test the potential of mobile phones for detecting red blood cells infected by malaria parasites.

Detecting Baby Brain Injuries

A project led by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Qianqian Fang is attempting to develop a near-infrared camera attachment for mobile phones that can monitor brain injury in neonatals. By using a low-cost accessory that does not require stationary equipment, countless newborns in isolated areas could be saved from permanent brain damage.The device would be intended for Third World–or, say, any remote locale where medical practitioners do not have access to conventional equipment.


Tron-ification Of Medical Records

VillageReach’s Allen Wilcox is using the Gates’ grant money to create an instant mobile scanning system for health care records. Health care providers could scan medical paperwork with a standard smartphone camera during the course of treatment that would go into a centralized database accessible by other specialists serving the patient, drastically improving health care and reducing costs.

Bug Zapping

Josiane Nzouonta and Renita Machado of New Jersey-based firm Cayoll are developing a smartphone application called eMosquitonet that plays music which includes sound waves at resonant frequencies for dengue fever-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. The app is designed to cause any disease-carrying mosquito nearby to vibrate uncontrollably, lose all sense of direction and crash, thereby negating any chance of infecting nearby humans.

Charging With Dirt


A project led by Harvard University’s Erez Liberman-Aiden is developing a low-cost microbial fuel cell to recharge mobile phones in Africa using dirt. Free electrons naturally given off by microbes living in dirt could potentially power mobile phone chargers, letting rural communities use mobile phones without a nearby generator for recharging. This could likely work, even thought getting a full charge would take ages.

[Image of VillageReach smartphone healthcare application courtesy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; top image: Flickr user tommypatto ˜ IMAGINE]

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