Diagnostic Tool Captures Cancer With iPhone Camera

Smartphones already help manage chronic pain, facilitate meditation and even prescribe corrective lenses. But what if they could be used to diagnose cancer as well? Ralph Weissleder MD, PHD, Hakho Lee, PhD and a team of clinical researchers and engineers at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a smartphone-based system that can do exactly that in under an hour.

The D3 system—which stands for digital diffraction diagnosis—utilizes a smartphone’s camera to detect the presence of cancer in a cell sample. To use D3, a health care professional collects a blood sample, tissue from a fine needle biopsy or cells from a pap smear. Before being placed on a microscope slide and inserted into an imaging module attached to a smartphone, the samples are treated with microbeads coated in antibodies that bind to the antigens or proteins associated with cancer cells. The microbeads, concentrated around likely cancerous cells, reflect light. The smartphone takes a high-resolution photo of the sample, and the image is uploaded to a server where an algorithm analyzes the microbeads’ refraction patterns. In as little as 45 minutes, the system can categorize the sample as high-risk, low-risk or benign.

By quantifying the number of tumor-marker-targeting microbeads bound to cells (lower images), the D3 system categorizes high- and low-risk cervical biopsy samples as well as traditional pathology (upper images). | Image courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Systems Biology.

By quantifying the number of tumor-marker-targeting microbeads bound to cells (lower images), the D3 system categorizes high- and low-risk cervical biopsy samples as well as traditional pathology (upper images). | Image courtesy of MGH Center for Systems Biology.

In a pilot study published last May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the D3 system diagnosed cell samples collected from patients with suspicious pap smear data as accurately as traditional pathology readings.

The cost of using the D3 system is extremely low. According to research fellow Hyungsoon Im, PhD, most of the cost comes from the necessary antibodies, which he estimates at just under $2 per assay. The iPhone attachment, compatible with a $145 is estimated at $55. Plans are underway to develop versions compatible with more recent iPhone models.

Low-cost, portable diagnostic devices are particularly needed in developing countries with limited access to pathologists. The D3 team has recently secured a five year grant to optimize the technology and later conduct a large clinical trial in Botswana. They plan to spend two years optimizing the technology here in Boston before conducting a three-year trial in affiliation with the Botswana Oncology Global Outreach.

The D3 team has high hopes for their device in the U.S. as well.

“The device has a lot of potential because it is convenient, efficient and easy to use,” says Im, who believes that the D3 system is particularly well suited to operate as a pre-screening device. Furthermore, although the device has only been used to detect cervical cancer and lymphoma, the system has other potential applications.

“We want to expand our capabilities to look at proteins, do DNA testing and look at multiple diseases.”

Abigail Ballou

Abigail Ballou

    Abby Ballou is the managing editor of MedTech Boston. She has a B.A. and M.Phil in English literature from NYU and the CUNY Graduate Center, respectively. When she isn't writing and editing for MedTech Boston, Abby enjoys reading, rock climbing, watching classic movies and listening to opera.

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