Using IoT-enabled microscopes to fight epidemic outbreaks

IoT enables pathology experts to remotely detect viral outbreaks and quickly quarantine and treat the infected

Catching viruses before they spread is hard. They often originate in remote areas, and spread by insects. Further, location makes it difficult to analyze blood samples for infections in order to treat them early.

The challenge is urgent. Once infectious diseases such as Yellow Plague and Ebola spread, they are much harder to contain and manage. That means it's essential to catch outbreaks quickly, especially when diseases can be spread rapidly by mosquitos. For if you can identify them quickly, you can quarantine and treat patients before they infect others.

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The problem is experts are often geographically distant from outbreaks, and traditional methods of sending samples to remote clinics for analysis often result in delays, allowing epidemics to spread further.

To expedite the analysis of samples and fight outbreaks, researchers are turning to IoT-enabled digital pathology microscopes.

Project Requirements

A simple lens attached to a smartphone can capture and send an image. Such images are often not granular enough for pathology, though. Also, sending a complete picture of a microscope slide with the blood sample with resolution adequate for a diagnosis is hard due to bandwidth constraints and the need to inspect different parts of the blood sample.

And if you send a high-resolution image of just a part of the sample, it may not provide the pathologist with enough details. What’s needed is a remote-controlled digital microscope that a pathologist can control—pan or zoom to the part of interest.

IoT Microscope Pathology Epidemic

Digital pathology converts glass slides into digital slides that can be viewed, managed and analyzed on a computer monitor. It’s typically done in a lab where the pathologist can control which part of the sample is to be seen. In our project, the pathologist could be a thousand miles away from the blood sample to be analyzed.

We also needed to design a unit that was affordable and rugged so that it could be deployed in remote clinics where field workers would prepare blood samples for inspection by remote pathologists.

Prototype development

To expedite prototype development and keep costs down, we decided to adapt the controls of an existing microscope rather than developing a new system from scratch. Three alterations were made to a commercial microscope:

  • Stage control, which adjusts the position of the microscope slide horizontally (pan) so that a pathologist can put the lens above the part of the blood sample to be analyzed
  • Remotely operated focus controls that allow pathologists to zoom in and out 
  • A high-resolution camera attached to the ocular lens to take and transmit the images to the cloud platform

The diaphragm and light intensity controls of the microscope weren’t modified for this phase of the project.

Pathology IoT

Project insights

  1. We found that by retro-fitting an existing microscope with IoT capabilities (rather than designing a new one), we were able to keep costs well below budget.
  2. Mounting the digital motors to control the adjustments on the microscope was a delicate process, and it took several design cycles to achieve both sensitivity and sturdiness.
  3. Having manual knobs similar to a regular microscope (versus a mobile app) made it easier for pathologists to learn how to remotely control the microscope.

Time is of the essence in responding to an epidemic. IoT now enables pathology experts to remotely detect viral outbreaks from blood samples and quickly quarantine and treat the infected. A new tool in the fight against epidemics!

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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