Curing Disease With the Help of Smartphone: Students Aim to Combat Malaria

A team of graduate students has created a new smartphone application they say will allow healthcare workers in remote locations to diagnose malaria cases on the spot.

But first, the students hope their application wins this weekend's Imagine Cup 2011 national finals in Seattle.

The 9th-annual Imagine Cup, sponsored by Microsoft, asks student entrants to "imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems."

Tristan Gibeau, 25, a graduate computer engineering student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said his team's application fits the bill.

"It's going to make a difference in trying to contain the outbreak of malaria," said Gibeau, the project's software designer.

"In the big picture, it'll hopefully help in the fight against most diseases out there and make everybody's life a little easier."

His team's prototype is a Windows 7-equipped Samsung Focus smart phone modified with a microscopic camera lens.

Gibeau said the software application can take a picture of a blood sample, process the data to detect malaria parasites, quantify how much malaria is in the sample and point the parasites out to the phone user.

"It actually draws a red box around the clusters of malaria, and it actually notifies you how many it found," Gibeau said.

Although microscopic lenses are already available for smart phones, Gibeau said the software takes the concept's usefulness to another level.

It would enable a doctor or nurse working, for example, in an African village lacking Internet access to make a diagnosis without having to upload data for processing elsewhere.

However, once the data stored in the phone is uploaded, it can be used to spot disease trends, Gibeau said.

He said he is working on smart phone applications to detect sickle cell and other diseases and also plans to make the software easily adaptable to lab-based microscopes.

The smart phone application was the idea of team member Wilson To, a 25-year-old graduate student in comparative pathology at the University of California at Davis.

It builds upon a mobile microscope concept that To and a different team created to win last year's Imagine Cup national finals.

Gibeau said the team is working toward patenting and marketing the new application.

"From different conversations we've had with investors, we feel that this definitely is a money-maker," he said.