In an era of proton beam radiation therapy and robotic surgery, headlines in medical technology are generally made by the biggest, most cutting-edge, and thereby generally the most expensive advances. The funny thing is that these top-dollar advances generally have the least impact on the health of the American population. Often, the millions of dollars spent buying and maintaining one of these machines would be better spent buying people gym memberships.

That’s why the work being done by Aydogan Ozcan is that much more important and exciting. An electrical engineer with a unique combination of interests in “nano-photonics” and global health, his work focuses on tackling diseases like HIV, malaria, giardia, and other global scourges in cost-effective yet high-tech ways. Perhaps the National Geographic profile puts it best

Aydogan Ozcan has the Ph.D., the expertise, and the engineering acumen to perfect the world’s most complex medical diagnostic technology. Instead, he’s solving global health issues–with a cell phone.

When it comes to global health challenges, anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of the topic can attest to the fact that access is the issue – access to tools to diagnose disease, medication and other therapies, and the healthcare providers to provide. At the Bio- and Nano-Photonics lab at UCLA, whose stated mission is to “create photonics based telemedicine technologies toward next generation smart global health systems,” they are focusing on how to diagnose and track diseases like malaria and HIV.

In short, his aspiration is to take an innovative “lens-less” microscope – one that utilizes a mobile phone and a small peripheral device – to capture images that can be analyzed on the mobile phone or transmitted for further analysis at a central site. As described in this article,

Ozcan’s modified phone uses a special light source and the phone’s camera to capture an image of a blood sample, essentially turning the phone into a lens-free microscope.

With funding from the NIH, NSF, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Air Force, and Navy, there are clearly a lot of people that believe in the extraordinary potential of this work. As early as next year, there are field trials slated for rural Africa in which this tool will be used to diagnose and track malaria. Anyone that has any interest in healthcare, or for that matter anyone with a sense of humanity, will hoping that Dr. Ozcan and his team are successful.