By Kimberly Clark, Daily Free Press Staff Writer

Unless you live under a rock, I’m sure that you, or at least someone you know, owns a smartphone. We love our smartphones; they are a cellphone, computer, ipod, GPS system and PDA all rolled into one compact device. Let’s not forget about those apps. From work-related applications to boredom cures (Angry Birds, anyone?), there is an app for practically everything.  And by everything, I mean everything. What’s that you say? What about promoting public health? Yes, there’s an app for that, too.

UCLA Engineering Professor Aydgogan Ozcan has been researching and developing a lens-free computational microscope application for smartphones. The goal of this telemedicine research is to provide health care workers in developing countries with convenient tools that can be used to diagnose infectious diseases, such as HIV, TB and malaria.

The lens-free microscope functions by using computational algorithms to produce an image of a cell from its shadow. Unlike us and our shadows, cells are semi-transparent to light and their shadows have unique textures. The algorithms, based on optical principles of light, can take these textured shadows and produce high resolution images of the cells, just like the images from a standard microscope.

This new technology will greatly increase the efficiency of health care workers in remote areas. Instead of manually transporting blood samples to a hospital to be tested, a blood sample could be transmitted back and forth electronically.

The device can also look at a couple thousand of cells quickly, a feat unachieved by a standard lens microscope. Malaria, widespread in developing African countries, affects only 1 percent of cells. A pathologist must look at about a thousand cells to confidently diagnose malaria. Not only will the lens-free microscope accelerate that process, it can also mark potentially infected cells to enable faster treatment.

Even with all those capabilities, the entire device only weights about 30-40 grams.

Did you hear that? That’s the sound of health care workers all over the world dropping their heavy backpacks of standard medical equipment.

Researchers think that the lens-free microscope will be extremely cost-effective. There is no need to develop a new type of smartphone. The ideal smartphone for the application would be an android, but any device with a camera module, even a recycled phone, would suffice.

The lens-free microscopes are only the beginning. Researchers hope to develop many other medical devices which will operate around the smartphone.  And you thought Siri was cool. Just you wait.