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NIH recognizes engineering professor's innovative research with major award

Cell phones have come a long way in the last decade. Today, one can talk, text message, shoot photos and video, send and receive e-mail, and even access the Web. Now imagine a cell phone that can be used to monitor diseases like HIV or malaria and to test water quality after a major disaster like a hurricane or earthquake.

Aydogan Ozcan, assistant professor of electrical engineering at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been working to make this cell phoneturnedmobile medical lab a reality. The proliferation of such devices could alter the direction of health care in the developing world, as well as in industrialized nations, in the next several years.

The great promise of Ozcan's work has earned him several prestigious honors for young scientists, most recently the 2009 NIH Director's New Innovator Award. Given to young faculty by the National Institutes of Health, the award includes funding of $1.5 million over five years to support highly innovative research projects.

"It is an honor to receive such an award from the NIH," said Ozcan, who is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA. "This award will be invaluable in my efforts to create a revolutionary device that is capable of significantly improving health care in the long-run by increasing the throughput and speed of nano-imaging."

This NIH award program is specifically designed to support creative new investigators with highly innovative research ideas at an early stage in their career, when they may lack the preliminary data required for traditional grants. The review process emphasizes creativity, innovative research approaches and the potential of a given project to have a significant impact on an important biomedical or behavioral research problem.

Ozcan will use the NIH award to further his research, exploring new ways to image and sense nanoscale events using compact imaging architectures that can potentially be interfaced with standard cell phones.

"This research has the potential for global impact, and we are very excited that the NIH has recognized both Professor Ozcan and his work," said Paul S. Weiss, director of the CNSI.

"Aydogan's work has great potential in transforming mobile phones into portable yet powerful medical devices," said Vijay K. Dhir, dean of UCLA Engineering. "The significant attention he's received for his research is well deserved and is a testament to the quality of young faculty we have here at the school."

In Ozcan's lab, a prototype cell phone diagnostic unit has been constructed that utilizes LUCAS, an innovative lens-free, high-throughput imaging platform. LUCAS (Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell Monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging) first uses a light source to illuminate a sample of blood, saliva or other fluid. Then, with a sensor array, a "shadow image" essentially a diffraction pattern is obtained of the microparticles in the sample, such as red blood cells.

Because red blood cells and other microparticles have a distinct diffraction pattern, they can be identified and counted virtually instantaneously by LUCAS using a custom-developed "decision algorithm" that compares the captured shadow images to a library of images. Data collected by LUCAS can then be sent to a hospital for analysis and diagnosis using the cell phone, or transferred by USB to a computer for transmission to a hospital.

The compact, lightweight and portable nature of LUCAS makes the potential impact of Ozcan's mobile lab very exciting. Currently, microscopes and advanced medical lab equipment, like flow cytometers, represent the standard for examining, identifying and counting cells. But they are bulky, cost tens of thousands of dollars and require trained technicians to operate.

"With LUCAS, we were able to simplify the imaging device. And because LUCAS does not require a lens, we were also able to increase the visual field to a few hundred times larger than the area that can be seen under a microscope," Ozcan said. "LUCAS really provides a capability that doesn't exist today."

Resource-poor areas, like parts of Africa, India and Brazil, would benefit enormously from having tools that could diagnose and monitor diseases in the field. Today, the great distances between people in need of health care and the facilities capable of providing it still pose a major obstacle to improving health.

According to Ozcan, the LUCAS platform can be produced rather inexpensively parts cost less than $10 and all one needs is a simple camera phone. In developed nations like the United States, point-of-care testing can potentially be done by LUCAS as well, reducing the cost and frequency of visits to the doctor's office and to labs.

Specifically, for HIV patients, the phone can be used to measure CD4 or CD8 cells in a person's blood to determine if an HIV patient has AIDS; or a red blood cell count can determine if someone is anemic or might have malaria. Further, in the event of a disaster in which water quality may be compromised, the cell phone can be used to detect hazardous microparticles that might have contaminated drinking water.

To broaden the applications of LUCAS, Ozcan's next goal is to modify the imaging platform so that it is able to detect low concentrations of bacteria, at levels of 100 to 1,000 bacteria per milliliter. Ozcan says he is confident that when merged with nanotechnology, LUCAS can be enhanced to analyze nanoparticles like viruses, proteins and even DNA.

In addition to the New Innovator Award, Ozcan, 30, was also recently named one of Technology Review's top young innovators under the age of 35. The magazine honors technologists and scientists whose work they believe is changing the world.


Contact: Wileen Wong Kromhout
University of California - Los Angeles

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