Using a specialized microscope to measure how fast living cells move from point A to point B is valuable to diagnose many diseases and in other research, but it's also very expensive. That is until a Ph.D. student hacked his own simpler microscope to conduct such complex measurements for thousands of dollars less than the higher-tech variety.
Adam Lynch, who is studying at Brunel University London, was researching how the snail immune system responds to pollutants in the water, which could influence its transmission of various parasites that are also infectious to humans. Using an inverted microscope, Lynch would be able to tell how polluted water affected cell behavior. Such a microscope though costs thousands of dollars, and Lynch needed more than one such scope at a time.
That's why he devised a way to clamp his own USB microscope upside down on a table to emulate an inverted microscope.
"It worked OK as I could sort of see cells, which are about 50 micrometres long, but the images weren't fantastic," he said in a statement. "But people don't realize that you can quite easily make a high-magnification microscope, it's just a matter of getting a lens and the right angle of lighting, so when I turned off the lighting that came with the instrument and used external lights I found I could see the cells quite clearly."
Lynch estimated that his system cost about 160 pounds (or about $250), but he thinks it can be made even cheaper.
"When you're looking at motility in cells you're only interested in the data — how fast the cell gets from A to B means more than a high-resolution image," Lynch said. "Even with a high-cost microscope you will reduce the image down so that it's just a black dot on the screen moving against a white background so that it's easier for a computer to read."
Lynch increased his output by syncing three cheaper microscopes together and finding a coder through an online forum who made a way for him to run all three scopes from one laptop, PhysOrg reported, noting that the university would not have been able to afford doing this with traditional inverted microscopes.
"I could have worked around the software but one alternative would be to have three laptops, which is very convoluted, it's not an elegant solution. The software let me use one laptop with three cameras, and since these microscopes are coming down in price all the time, the whole thing cost about 100 [pounds]," Lynch told PhysOrg.
Lynch said he believes a simple hack like his could allow the technology to be brought out into the field where diseases are more prevalent but funding is hard to come by.
"The irony is that these diseases are in the places with the lowest resources," Lynch told PhysOrg. "They might not have labs with equipment and inverted microscopes, but people do have laptops. We checked this doesn't need the top of the range stuff to run, it's pretty simple stuff. But people could make use of a low-cost system compatible with basic technology."
He's currently looking for other applications for the microscope and is building a better case.