A year ago, when Wilson To decided to try building a better malaria test, his first visit was not to a hospital or a lab but to an electronics store. He needed a micro lens, the tiny ball of glass that guides the laser in a CD or DVD player. “We literally started tearing up these devices,” says To, 25, a doctoral student in pathology at the University of California at Davis.
Later this summer, To and four partners will begin field-testing the result of that experimentation, a diagnostic tool dubbed Lifelens, in India and Ethiopia. Lifelens makes use of a smartphone running Windows 7 Phone software. A $50 micro lens is mounted over the phone’s camera and can capture high-resolution images of the cells in a drop of blood. Software quickly analyzes the images, confirming the presence or absence of malaria.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 percent of malaria deaths occur, health workers rely on so-called rapid diagnostic tests. They work like home pregnancy tests: Place a blood sample on a plastic cassette and wait up to 30 minutes for the results. The best ones are as accurate as a lab test and cost as little as 50¢.
To believes that a computer-based malaria test is an improvement over existing methods. Although Lifelens will have high upfront costs—most smartphones go for hundreds of dollars—it’s just as cheap as other tests over the long run, since it can be used over and over, and makes a diagnosis in just one minute. Lifelens-equipped phones can also transmit real-time results to public health workers, helping them track malaria cases more effectively. And by upgrading the software, Lifelens will eventually be able to diagnose any blood-borne disorder, including sickle cell anemia, certain parasites, and vascular diseases. “Malaria is just the beginning,” says To. “We’re building a platform.”
David Bell, head of the malaria program at the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics in Geneva, says Lifelens is promising but cautions that it has a long road ahead. Disposable tests are already in wide use, and others are developing diagnosis technologies, including a DNA-based one that could, like Lifelens, test for multiple illnesses. Only “one or two” of the new techniques will catch on, he says.
To grew up in Silicon Valley, the son of working-class Chinese immigrants. To date he’s funded Lifelens with prize money from technology competitions, including an award won at this year’s Imagine Cup, a contest sponsored by Microsoft (MSFT). Cy Khormaee, an MBA candidate at Harvard Business School who’s working with To to commercialize the technology, says venture capitalists are interested. If Lifelens can be tweaked to diagnose common developed-world ailments such as diabetes, it could go from being “basically a charity job” to a real business, says Khormaee. Either way, says To, “we think our product has the ability to save lives.”