Making use of novel lensless imaging technology, a UCLA engineer has invented the world’s smallest, lightest telemedicine microscope. The self-contained device could radically transform global health care – particularly in Third World countries – with its ability to image blood samples or other fluids. It can even be used to test water quality in the field following a disaster like a hurricane or earthquake.

Created by Aydogan Ozcan, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and a researcher at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute, the microscope builds on imaging technology known as LUCAS - Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell Monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging - which was also developed by Ozcan.

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Instead of using a lens to magnify objects, LUCAS generates holographic images of microparticles or cells by employing a light-emitting diode to illuminate the objects and a digital sensor array to capture their images.

In addition to being more compact and lightweight than conventional microscopes, it also does away with the need for trained technicians to analyze the images produced. Rather, the images are analyzed by computer so that results are available instantaneously.

The icroscope itself also requires minimal training. Because of its large imaging field of view, the sample does not need to be scanned or perfectly aligned in the microscope. And operating the microscope is as simple as filling a chip with a sample and sliding the chip into a slot on the side of the microscope.

Weighing 46 grams ― approximately as much as a large egg ― the microscope is a self-contained imaging device. The only external attachments necessary are a USB connection to a smart-phone, PDA or computer, which supplies the microscope with power and allows images to be uploaded for conversion into results and then sent to a hospital.

Also, because of its large aperture, the lensless microscope is also resistant to problems caused by debris clogging the light source. In addition, there are few moving parts, making the microscope fairly robust.

Samples are loaded using a small chip that can be filled with saliva or a blood smear for health monitoring. With blood smears, the lensless microscope is capable of accurately identifying cells and particles, including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The technology has the potential to help monitor diseases like malaria, HIV and tuberculosis in areas where there are great distances between people in need of health care and the facilities capable of providing it, Ozcan said.

Ozcan believes his microscope is ideal for use in telemedicine. In resource-limited settings, tools that are portable enough to do medical tests in the field are vital. Tools like the lensless microscope could be digitally integrated as part of a telemedicine network that connects various mobile health-care providers to a central lab or hospital, filling gaps in physical infrastructure with mobile tools. The transmission connections for such networks already exist in cellular networks, which have penetrated even the most remote corners of the globe.

Using a couple of inexpensive add-on parts, the lensless microscope can also be converted into a differential interference contrast (DIC) microscope, also known as a Nomarski microscope. DIC microscopes are used to gain information on the density of a sample, giving the appearance of a 3-D image by putting lines and edges in stark contrast. The additional parts for conversion to a DIC microscope cost approximately US$1 to $2.

The microscope was unveiled in a paper entitled, “Compact, light-weight and cost-effective microscope based on lensless incoherent holography for telemedicine applications,” which was published online in the journal, Lab on a Chip.