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Smartphones and 3D printers could revolutionise laboratories

Johan Kreuger and his research team updated an old standard microscope using a smartphone and a 3D printer.

New and cheap technology could provide more accessible laboratory equipment to researchers with limited funding. Two recently published studies at Uppsala University demonstrate the possibility to film live cells and to identify diseases using old microscopes, smartphones and 3D printers.

Filming living cells is an important tool when it comes to for instance studying how cells respond to different medical treatments or toxins. However, the microscopes and other equipment needed to study living cells is often very expensive.

Now Uppsala University researchers have demonstrated how a plain old smartphone together with a standard microscope can be used for the same puropse. The microscope was uppdated with a few 3D printed parts, some readily available electronics and a smartphone.

Kidney cells photographed using a smartphone. Photo: Johan Kreuger

The researchers showed that the updated system offered a good environment for cell cultures and that it could be used to produce high-resolution video and images of living cells.

“What we have done in this project isn’t rocket science, but it shows you how 3D printing will transform the way scientists work around the world. 3D printing has the potential to give researchers with limited funding access to research methods that were previously too expensive,” says Johan Kreuger, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Medical Cell Biology, Uppsala University.

Johan Kreuger.

“The technology presented here can readily be adapted and modified according to the specific need of researchers, at a low cost. Indeed, in the future, it will be much more common that scientists create and modify their own research equipment, and this should greatly propel technology development,” says Johan Kreuger.

Another recent study shows how doctors, with the help of a new microscope which is attached to a regular mobile, can diagnose for example cancer tumours, infections and tuberculosis.

A small, simple and relatively cheap microscope which is printed using a 3D printer and coupled to the camera of a mobile phone can be used to assess tumours, bacteria, viruses and fungal cells. This way, the technology becomes available to more people, even in poorer parts of the world.

The microscope and smartphone can identify specific genes or mutations in the DNA of the studied sample. If doctors find certain DNA codes they can know exactly which form of cancer, bacteria or virus they are dealing with, which is important in order to choose the most effective treatment.

Mats Nilsson with the microscope.
Photo: Malte Kuhnemund

“I’m used to needing large, expensive and complicated machines that take up entire rooms to do DNA sequencing. To me, the thought of being able to use a mobile phone is very interesting. It opens the door to many new and very important areas of application,” says Mats Nilsson at Stockholm and Uppsala University, and SciLifeLab Stockholm.

Today, DNA sequencing is done at the laboratories of large hospitals. The small, 3D printed microscope can make the technology available to more people, even in poorer parts of the world. If the microscope were to be manufactured on a larger scale, the price could drop below 500 dollars, and it is not dependent on a stable supply of electricity since it runs off the phone’s battery.

“Antibiotics are an efficient weapon against bacteria. But we are beginning to loose that weapon as bacteria become resistant. With tuberculosis, resistance is a serious problem. But if we could look at the DNA and find out if a bacteria is sensitive to a certain type of antibiotic, we could pick the right treatment straight away. That is where I believe this concept has its greatest potential,” says Mats Nilsson.

In a new study published in Nature Communications, the technology has been used to diagnose colorectal tumours. The researchers also hope the technology can speed up diagnosis of virus infections such as Ebola and Zika.

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Linda Koffmar / Annica Hulth

2017-01-25