A smartphone today can be used as a compass, dictionary, carpenter level or even a barcode scanner. But in a few years, your phone may be able to diagnose your illness, all thanks to a UC Davis Ph.D. candidate.
Wilson To, in his second year of studying comparative pathology, and his teammates of Team Lifelens developed a smartphone application that can diagnose malaria from a patient’s blood sample. The project took second place this past week at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Competition 2011 in New York, N.Y.
The Imagine Cup Competition is an annual student competition hosted by Microsoft. Started in 2003, it challenges students to use both their creativity and the latest technology to address and solve today’s global issues. This year’s theme was “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.”
To, the innovator of the group, formed Team Lifelens in November of last year after participating in the 2010 Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in Warsaw, Poland.
“Attending the Worldwide Finals last year truly opened my eyes to everything that is going on in the world. I felt like I had been living in a bubble and there were a lot of problems that I didn’t know about,” To said.
For last year’s competition, To invented an application that utilized a cell phone to take pictures of the eye to visualize blood flow. Based on these images, a diagnosis of certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other vascular disorders could be made. To used this same concept this year but took a more narrow approach.
“I wanted to focus my research on one specific disease that has a huge impact on the world today. After attending the Worldwide Finals last year, I knew it had to be malaria,” To said.
Tristan Gibeau, a computer engineering graduate student at the University of Central Florida and member of Team Lifelens, remembers when To approached him about this idea.
“[To] and I were at a conference in Anaheim, Calif. and he had this crazy idea to turn a smartphone into a super specialized scanning tool to find terminal disease. Little did I know I was in for an excellent ride. I helped develop with our team a revolutionary project that will help millions,” Gibeau said.
This is when the team, Lifelens, was born. Once To had his idea set, he selected a team of other students based on what he believed the team needed. Team Lifelens is composed of To, Gibeau, Cy Khormaee of Harvard Business School, Jason Wakizaka of UCLA Anderson School of Management and Helena Xu, a recent graduate of UC San Diego now working for an investment banker.
“All in all, I think we have a rockstar team. I think the diversity of academic background adds a great twist to our project,” Gibeau said.
The technology behind the Lifelens project is intricate in design. The team developed an application for the Windows Mobile 7 Smartphone in which a doctor or nurse can draw a sample of the patient’s blood, take a picture of the blood using the cell phone’s camera, and then, using the image analysis software designed by Gibeau, confirm a diagnosis of malaria.
Although the algorithm may be complicated, the application is easy to use.
“Lifelens can be used by anyone who has the ability to operate basic cell phones. This opens up the possibilities of even shipping devices directly to afflicted areas as no special training or language skills are necessary for the operation of the device,” said the team’s website.
To plans on continuing with Lifelens and other similar research projects when he graduates from Davis. Throughout his education, he has always tried to look past simply learning material and reciting it for a test.
“Many of my professors have stressed the importance of the ability to apply our research to real world problems. That is what Lifelens is doing and I hope to continue this type of purpose in my future,” he said.
To envisions Lifelens technology being used to diagnose other diseases as well.
“I would really like to see this technology being extended out in the future. Once you are able to see cells, the possibilities become endless,” he said.
However, the Imagine Cup Competition is far from over for Team Lifelens.
“One of the nice things about [the competition] is there are multiple competitions within itself. We focused on Software Design for our main competition, but we are also in the Windows Phone 7 competition which goes straight to Worldwide Finals,” Gibeau said.
The team can be tracked on their Facebook page as well as Twitter. More information can be found on the team’s official website at thelifelensproject.com. Students can also go to the People’s Choice Awards website, which allows the public to see who the finalists are, view videos of their projects and vote for their favorite team, including Team Lifelens.
CLAIRE MALDARELLI can be reached at email@example.com.