Using Smartphones to Detect Cancer


Researchers  are getting close to finding a way to use one’s smartphone to detect cancer. Image: Cheon Fong Lieu via Flickr CC.

Doctors could soon be using smartphones to detect cancer in their patients, thanks to the work of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital. Ceaser Castro, MD and Ralph Weissleder, MD, PhD have developed a device to do just that. They call it the D3 system, which stands for digital diffraction diagnosis, and so far it has been able to detect cancer with the same regularity as established methods.

The system has a battery powered LED, which is attached to a smartphone in order to take advantage of that devices high definition camera. The D3 has a wider field of view than traditional microscopy, allowing it to record data on over 100,000 cells at a time. The phone, using a secure cloud system, can then upload the information to a remote processing server and then download it when that data is processed.

The D3 system relies on photographing blood or tissue samples that have been treated with special microbeads. These microbeads attach to known cancer molecules in various patterns. By analyzing the patterns formed by the beads, the D3 system can identify what, if any, cancer exists within the sample.

Since the beads attach to cancer related molecules, they can also be used preventively. A test case used 25 cervical tissue samples from women with irregular PAP smears, and the beads sought out three known markers of cervical cancer. The D3 system was able to determine which samples were high-risk, low-risk, or benign.

The benefits of such a system are many. In particular, it would make diagnosis quicker and easier, meaning that patients would have to spend less time at the doctor’s office, and wouldn’t have to make as many return trips for tests. The system could also be incredibly cheap. In the tests performed, the results were available within an hour, and each assay only cost about $1.80, a price which is likely to drop after further development. The D3 system could make cancer diagnosis more widely available in financially troubled regions, where smartphones might be common but medical research is less available.

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