Treating malaria in rural villages? There's an app for that!

Microscopic camera lens, image analysis make phone a diagnostic tool

Everyone has a favorite application to fight viruses and other potential infections. A group of students from the University of Central Florida in Orlando (UCFO) is building one that can fight parasites as well.

Graduate-level computer engineers from UCFO called LifeLens are among the teams entered in the final round of the Imagine Cup 2011 software-development competition in Seattle.

The Microsoft-sponsored national competition offers prizes for technology designed not to solve particular business or technical problems, but the world's biggest problems.

The UCFO team decided to use the relatively high computing power, tiny but high-quality cameras and broad availability of smartphones in an attempt to partially replace lab equipment and microscopes that are difficult for doctors and nurses to carry into the field, especially in rural areas of the third world.

The result is a pattern-recognition application that turns a Samsung Focus running Windows Phone 7 into a mini-microscope that is able to recognize microscopic pathogens on its own.

Running the UCFO's application, a healthcare worker in a rural village in Africa could take a drop of blood from a patient and take a photomicrograph of it.

The UCFO software can then scan the image, separate the shape of blood cells from that of pathogens, and identify whether the blood sample is infected with the microscopic parasites that cause malaria – which infects as many as 500 million people per year worldwide and kills more than a million.

UNICEF reports estimate the death rate is 15 percent to 20 percent and that most of those killed are children younger than five.

LifeLens isn't perfect, but does detect malaria accurately 90 percent of the time – a far higher rate than comparable systems whose success rate is less than 50 percent.

"It actually draws a red box around the clusters of malaria, and it actually notifies you how many it found," according to Tristan Gibeau, the 25-year-old graduate student in 3D computer vision who designed the application.

Though they're hoping to come out on top at the Imagine Cup, Gibeau and Wilson To -- the graduate student in comparative pathology at UC-Davis – believe it will have commercial potential as well.

"From different conversations we've had with investors, we feel this is definitely a money-maker," Gibeau told Reuters.

Though designed to combat malaria, the software can be tweaked to detect other pathogens, diseased cells in sickle-cell anemia and diagnose other problems, Gibeau said.

It is also relatively easy to port to other smartphone operating systems, so it won't be limited by the dominant phone system in the markets in which it's sold.

Gibeau also plans to modify it to run as part of the diagnostic equipment on electronic microscopes.

The LifeLens team won the software category in the U.S. competition, but lost out to a team from Thailand in the final round.

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