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When Science Leaves the Lab, Microscopy Goes Portable

When Science Leaves the Lab, Microscopy Goes Portable content piece image
A high resolution image of fish gills. Credit: Aquasolver.
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Microscopy is a key tool in many areas of research, but what happens when what you want to study is in a remote location, doesn’t transport well or you need instant answers? Well, then the analysis has to go to the sample. This is a concept that Andrew Monk and Richard Williams, cofounders of ioLight, have been working on since 2014. ioLight is a lightweight, portable, digital, microscope with a resolution of better than 1 μm that produces detailed images that can be displayed directly on a tablet or mobile phone.

We spoke to Andrew Monk, cofounder of ioLight, about ioLight’s conception and what makes it so special.

Karen Steward (KS): What inspired the design of the ioLight microscope? Were there any particular motivators that got the project started?

Andrew Monk (AM):
 ioLight co-founder Richard Williams was consulting for a client and he needed a good quality microscope that he could take to site and that didn’t cost a fortune. He was very surprised to find that it was impossible to purchase a good quality portable digital microscope.

We started to wonder why microscopes using mobile phones were such poor quality and Richard soon discovered that the design of the optical system in a mobile phone made it unsuitable for microscopy applications. Once we realized that we had to start with designing a new optical system. Once this was achieved, we were on to a winner!

KS: What have been the biggest challenges in developing the ioLight microscope?

From the beginning we wanted the microscope to be wireless. But transmitting high-resolution images over a wireless link with zero lag is actually very hard. Drone companies spend millions on this, but we didn’t have those resources, so we had to be very creative!

KS: There are a number of portable microscopes emerging onto the market. What makes the ioLight stand out?

Resolution, portability and mobile phone integration.

Many of the digital microscopes on the market have quite low resolution. They often boast x1600 or x2000 magnification, but images look awful when they are enlarged that much. Resolution is key to beautiful images and no other portable microscope gives 1 micron resolution.

There are digital microscopes that do deliver 1 micron resolution. However, they are expensive, big and they need a stand, a transmitted light illuminator, cables and a laptop, so they are not portable. All of these key features are integrated into the ioLight microscope. The ioLight microscope stores its images on a standard mobile phone using the ioLight app, so no other equipment is needed.

With an ioLight microscope and a mobile phone in your pocket you can share images of cells, for example, from anywhere in the world to anyone.

KS: Can you tell us about some of the most unusual applications where the ioLight microscope has been used?

Every application we do is exciting. The microscope has been to the Alaskan Wilderness, the Kazakhstan Steppe, The Amazon Rainforest and Antarctica. There is even one on Mount Everest! The iolight microscope is an essential tool for scientists working and researching in the remotest corners of the world. Not only is it easy to transport, but the image sharing facility is the cherry on the cake!

The most unusual application?

Well, that would be our friends at Niche Hair Lab who sell the very best quality human hair for beautiful hair extensions. Niche is obsessive about buying perfect hair and they travel across Russia and Eastern Europe to get the best. Their quality is guaranteed by inspection with their ioLight microscope.

KS: If you had to pick three words to describe what excites you most about the ioLight what would they be?

Resolution, portability, connectivity.

KS: Where do you see the most potential for developing the capabilities of the ioLight in the future?

We hope that ioLight’s microscope can help the World Health Organisation’s fight against Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

The World Health Organisation says “NTDs - a diverse group of communicable diseases that prevail in tropical and subtropical conditions in 149 countries – affect more than one billion people and cost developing economies billions of dollars every year. Populations living in poverty, without adequate sanitation and in close contact with infectious vectors and domestic animals and livestock are those worst affected."

For example, 220 million people required preventative treatment from Schistosomiasis in 2017. Schistosomiasis (or bilharzia) is an acute and chronic disease caused by parasitic worms. People are infected during routine agricultural, domestic, occupational, and recreational activities, which expose them to infested water. Lack of hygiene and certain play habits of school-aged children such as swimming or fishing in infested water make them especially vulnerable to infection.

Mobile microscopes like ioLight will help to quickly diagnose disease and parasites. Traditional compound microscopes are difficult to transport and use in remote environments and usually have no way of sharing images for records or a second expert opinion.

ioLight can share images and videos of parasites instantly from a standard mobile phone. This new class of high-resolution, portable microscope dramatically improves the speed of diagnosis, therefore helping in the fight to reduce disease.

Andrew Monk was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.