Checking for and diagnosing diseases and infections in the field, particularly in third-world countries, is always difficult, thanks to the necessity of expensive and heavy equipment to do so.

However, a team of scientists at UCLA seek to make the process simpler and more affordable by inventing an attachment for any smartphone that turns the phone into a DNA-scanning fluorescent microscope.

Scientists made the attachment with an external lens, a thin-film filter, a stage mount and a laser diode and then put it into a 3D-printed case that attaches to a smartphone.

To use the microscope, doctors must isolate and label the specific DNA they're looking for. Although that sounds complicated, it's something easily done even in the field with limited resources. Then doctors can scan for that DNA with the attachment on their phone via a simple interface and Windows app. Once scanned, data goes to a server that measures how long the DNA molecules are.

Although the process sounds complicated, with a good data or Wi-FI connection, it only takes about 10 seconds.

Although, other scientists have created attachments for turning smartphones into microscopes, this is the first of its kind with the capability to scan for single strands of DNA. As smartphones are so common now, scientists believe that this is a good solution for those medical professionals working in the field.

"A single DNA molecule, once stretched, is about two nanometers in width," says UCLA's Aydogan Ozcan. "For perspective, that makes DNA about 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. Currently, imaging single DNA molecules requires bulky, expensive optical microscopy tools, which are mostly confined to advanced laboratory settings. In comparison, the components for my device are significantly less expensive."

Scientists tested their attachment in the lab, where it had no problem scanning DNA segments with at least 10,000 base pairs. This includes detecting a gene responsible for Staph infections, as well as other bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

However, the device failed when scanning DNA segments with only 5,000 base-pairs. But scientists believe they can resolve that problem by using a higher number aperture on the attachment's lens.

UCLA scientists intend their device for use in remote settings for diagnosing diseases via DNA-scanning, including cancer and Alzheimer's, as well as diagnose infectious diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. They also plan future tests in the field, including using the attachment to detect malaria that is resistant to antibiotics.

[Photo Credit: The Optical Society]

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