A new, microscopic imaging device could allow diagnosis of diseases on a smartphone. 

Australian scientists have developed a low-cost microscopic imaging device small enough to fit on a smartphone camera lens. 

The device was developed by research engineers at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems (TMOS), which is helping to miniaturise phase-imaging technology using metasurfaces, which are only a few hundred nanometres thick – about 350 times thinner than the thickness of a human hair.

The detection of diseases often relies on optical microscope technology, which involves staining the cells with chemicals in a laboratory environment and using specialised ‘phase-imaging’ microscopes to make invisible aspects of a biological cell visible. 

However, phase-imaging microscopes are bulky and cost thousands of dollars, putting them out of reach of many medical practices, particularly in remote areas.

This new technology could help fill that gap, and one day lead to at-home disease detection, where the patient could obtain their own specimen through saliva or a pinprick of blood, and then transmit an image to a laboratory anywhere in the world for analysis and diagnosis.

Lead researcher Dr Lukas Wesemann says similar to expensive phase-imaging microscopes, these metasurfaces can manipulate the light passing through them to make otherwise invisible aspects of objects like live biological cells visible.

“We manufactured our metasurface with an array of tiny nanorods on a flat surface, arranged in such a way as to turn an invisible property of light, called its ‘phase’, into a normal image visible to the human eye, or conventional cameras,” Dr Wesemann said.

“These phase-imaging metasurfaces create high contrast, pseudo-3D images without the need for computer post-processing.

“Making medical diagnostic devices smaller, cheaper and more portable will help disadvantaged regions gain access to healthcare that is currently only available to first world countries.”

Co-author, TMOS Chief Investigator and University of Melbourne Professor Ann Roberts, said it was an exciting breakthrough in the field of phase-imaging.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how metasurfaces will completely reimagine conventional optics and lead to a new generation of miniaturised devices.”

More details are accessible here.