Australian researchers make a microscope from a smartphone

A group of Australian researchers, led by Dr Steve Lee of the Australian National University, have accidentally invented a way of turning a smartphone into a medical microscope. It’s an invention that shows the power of smartphones not just to make our lives easier but to make a real difference in society.

Head lice, McNuggets and now lab equipment

The discovery was made as the scientists tried to synthesize a silicone polymer called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). PDMS is used in all sorts of different applications, from the medical to the edible. It’s a part of head lice treatments, used to prevent foaming, and appears in fast foods such as McDonalds Chicken McNuggets.

Just think of that next time you’re eating a happy meal – some of the ingredients could kill bugs off your head!

But while the chemical is already in use, experimenting with new ways to produce it can be useful, this time by accident.

Big discoveries from small spills

Even in high tech labs, accidents will happen. Droplets of PDMS got spilled in the lab, and Dr Lee noticed that they formed lens-like shapes, hardening overnight. Discussing this with a medical doctor, he discovered that cheap, high quality lenses are incredibly useful in medical technology, and looked for ways to apply his discovery to this cause.

Building on the accidental discovery, Dr Lee and his team developed a way to make usable lenses from the PDMS. These lenses are only millimetres thick and can magnify images to up to 160 times their normal size. Pretty impressive for an accident in the lab.

To demonstrate the potential of their discovery, the team have invented an attachment that can be clipped onto a smartphone, turning it into dermatoscope. Used to diagnose skin cancer, dermatoscopes are potentially life-saving devices that normally cost hundreds of dollars.

Dr Lee’s lens attachment costs only $2.

The wonder box in your pocket

This isn’t the first time that smartphones have been used to improve healthcare. Smartphone apps are available to help train doctors and let isolated patients treat poisonous bites. They’ve made access to emergency services faster and easier than ever before. They’ve even been loaded up with medical textbooks and handed out to students to provide them with the materials to train as doctors.

The PDMS lens attachment shows how far and how fast this is going. In only a decade smartphones have gone from expensive novelties to a cheap way to provide specialist medical care. Specialist devices like a smartphone as dermatoscope or the security-focused Blackphone are pushing smartphones in new an interesting directions, unleashing the power of portable technology.

Whether the PDMS dermatoscope takes off remains to be seen. Those most in need of cheap equipment – doctors working in poor countries – are also those least likely to have smartphones to go with the lens. But the fact that Dr Lee’s team chose a smartphone as the way to show off their discovery just shows the potential of the processor in your pocket.

Who knows what it’ll be doing in another decade’s time.

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