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3D-printed plastic microscope targets rural areas

27 Oct 2015  | David Ruth

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A team of researchers from Rice University has created a plastic, miniature digital fluorescence microscope that can be used in rural areas to quantify white blood cell levels in patients. The project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative.

3D-printed WBC microscope

The assembled 3D-printed WBC microscope rests on an optical bench. The holes on the bench are spaced 1in apart, giving an idea of the microscope's size. (Credit: Alessandra Forcucci, Rice University)

Doctors can learn a lot about the state of a patient's immune system just by examining their blood under the microscope. An abnormally high or low white blood count, for instance, might indicate a bone marrow pathology or AIDS. The rupturing of white blood cells might be the sign of an underlying microbial or viral infection. Strangely shaped cells often indicate cancer.

While this old, simple technique may seem a quaint throwback in the age of high-tech health care tools like genetic sequencing, flow cytometry and fluorescent tagging, the high cost and infrastructure requirements of these techniques largely limit them to laboratory settings, something point-of-care diagnostics aims to fix.

The plastic microscope developed by Rice researchers is intended for use in parts of the world far removed from the modern laboratory.

"One of the driving aspects of the project is the cost of the sample or sample preparation," said Tomasz Tkaczyk, associate professor of bioengineering, Rice University. "Many systems which work for point-of-care applications have quite expensive cartridges. The goal of this research is to make it possible for those in impoverished areas to be able to get the testing they need at a manageable price point."

One of Tkaczyk's co-authors on the research was Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Rice's Malcolm Gillis University Professor, director of the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering and of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies and a fellow at The Optical Society.

How the microscope works

The researchers' device identifies and quantifies three types of white blood cells, lymphocytes, monocytes and granulocytes, in a drop of blood mixed with a staining compound. The compound is repelled by water at neutral pH, which allows it to easily diffuse through cellular and nuclear membranes, where it turns green or red when encountering DNA or RNA, respectively, with emission maximums at 525nm and 650nm. By optimising a microscope for these emission peaks, the researchers are then able to quantify the white blood cells in a sample consisting only of 20µL of dye, 20µL of whole blood and a glass slide with a coverslip.

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