Rice University scientists roll out mini Dx microscope for rural communities

Rice's Tomasz Tkaczyk

As researchers zero in on low-cost diagnostics for developing countries, a team of scientists at Rice University nabbed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a miniature plastic microscope for rural communities with a lack of healthcare infrastructure.

The team's microscope measures and identifies three types of white blood cells from a drop of blood, differentiating between the cells to diagnose a number of disorders including underlying microbial or viral infection, cancer or AIDS. Scientists, who got backing from the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, see the device as offering an advantage over other screening methods due to its cost.

The prototype microscope, which includes an LED light source, power supply, control unit, optical system and image sensor, costs less than $3,000 to construct. And greater production levels could translate into even lower costs, the researchers said in a statement, with prices dropping to about $600 per unit and each test ringing in at just a few cents.

"Many systems which work for point-of-care applications have quite expensive cartridges," Tomasz Tkaczyk, an associate professor in Rice University's Department of Bioengineering, said in a statement. "The goal of this research is to make it possible for those in impoverished areas to be able to get the testing they need at a manageable price point."

Next up, the team plans to develop an automated algorithm to identify white blood cells and compare their counts to traditional blood analyzers. Scientists will also explore future, mass-iterated versions of the microscope as low-cost components such as LEDs, reflectors and USB detectors become more prevalent.

Rice University researchers are not the only ones creating low-cost diagnostic devices. Scientists at Florida Atlantic University are rolling out a biosensing tool that uses a smartphone and paper microchip to screen for diseases such as HIV. And a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University is working on a low-cost nucleic acid amplification testing platform that can quickly diagnose chlamydia on an instrument the size of a coffee mug.

- read the statement

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