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Grad students detect malaria with phones

By Amy Simpson
On April 6, 2011

The future of diagnosing malaria may be just a snapshot away.

UCF computer engineering graduate student Tristan Gibeau and the other members of Team Lifelens have been working since November on a technological innovation for Microsoft's Imagine Cup 2011 competition.

Lifelens formed not only to participate in the technology competition, but also to create a simple, accurate and cost effective way to diagnose malaria. Gibeau joined the team after meeting Wilson To, a University of California-Davis graduate student who created the project idea, through the Microsoft Student Partner Program, where they both work from their respective campuses.

For this year's Imagine Cup competition, Gibeau and Lifelens developed a mobile smartphone application that uses high magnification and software developed by Gibeau to detect malaria in a blood sample. The phone is equipped with a special lens that is easily placed onto the phone's image sensor, as well as an app that the team created.

"He came up with this idea, and I ran with it," Gibeau said regarding To and the project. "And now we have a full working product that can detect both malaria as well as cell locations."

Using just a drop of blood smeared onto a slide, a photo is taken of the sample and a phone with Lifelens technology can visualize the blood on a cellular level to detect the presence of malarial parasites. It can also test an individual's blood count to eventually test for anemia.

"It was something that we felt was very important," said Gibeau. "Right now, current [malaria] testing is not very good. It's very, very clunky."

The team, which is spread across the nation, communicates via its computers, using email and desktop sharing. The U.S. finals will be the first time Gibeau will meet face-to-face with any of his team members, aside from To.

"It can be hard," Gibeau said. "I feel like we could probably be more productive if we were all together, but then again, we've done a pretty good job."

The team competed in last year's competition under the name Mobilife. They won the software category of the U.S. competition and moved on with 400 other students to Warsaw, Poland for the finals. There, a team from Thailand swept the competition with their software that translates speech into sign language and text in real time.

Gibeau was brought onto the team for this year's competition because of his experience with programming and computer vision image processing. In layman's terms, Gibeau said, it is "pretty much finding things in images." For example, finding malaria in a photograph of cells.

The theme of this year's competition is "Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems," and that's what the Lifelens team hopes to do.

According to UNICEF, malaria has a 15-20 percent mortality rate, and the majority of those deaths occur in children under five. The disease must be recognized promptly for treatment to be effective. After taking a photo of a blood sample, the Lifelens app takes 1-2 seconds to detect the presence of malaria. Current technology accurately detects malaria 40 percent of the time. Lifelens has 90 percent accuracy. It also costs less.

In a post on his website, The Gates Notes, Bill Gates stressed the importance of the future of cell phones for solving health care problems.

"Cell phones are amazing tools," he wrote. "For some of us, they're about staying in touch. For millions of people, it could be about staying alive."

Gates' foundation announced last year that it would give $100,000 in grants to eight scientists who are using of cell phones in areas with limited resources to improve health care.

Regarding the competition, Gates wrote that it's "one of the most important science competitions in the world."

Though he is battling lack of sleep, Gibeau considers the experience worthwhile.

"In school I've always done all these projects," he said. "I personally wanted to do this project because I wanted to apply my knowledge, my experience, what I know in general to be able to help someone other than myself."

The U.S. Finals are being held in Seattle next week, and the World Finals in May will be in New York City - the first U.S. city to host the World Finals.

The yearlong competition has taken place every year since 2003, starting with just 1,000 participants that first year and growing to more than 325,000 last year.

Sharon Pian Chan of the Seattle Times called it "a World Cup for nerds."

Aside from the title and monetary award for winners, there are many benefits for competitors, according to Microsoft's Academic Developer Evangelist, Tara Walker.

"It's a great way to start their own business," said Walker. "That's another benefit that the students really get. It can further their career and can take them to the next step after they graduate."

The competition gives participants real world experience and the opportunity to network with like-minded students as well as industry professionals. Their projects can also get visibility, which can lead to support and funding.

" I am not aware of any companies that do this to the magnitude that we do," said Walker.

The team hopes to be able to detect sickle cell anemia in time for the World Finals. Gibeau has already written down the procedure to program the application to do so. They would also like to work on preventive technology, to keep deadly diseases at bay by knowing how and where they spread.

"I enjoy this stuff so much," Gibeau said. "I'm glad I'm putting my knowledge and resources into good use."

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