Using cameras for medical purposes is nothing new: X-rays, MRI scans, and -scopes of various kinds all use imaging techniques. But with advances in digital photography and smartphone specs, there are now more ways than ever for healthcare to merge with technology. This is true for both the consumer market – where, as we’ve already explored, health-tracking apps and wearables are big business – and in clinical settings, too.
Here are 10 of the best camera-centric medical breakthroughs.
Video-assisted surgery is nothing new: doctors commonly use it for lung operations, making small incisions in the chest and inserting a thoracoscope, a thin tube with a camera at the end, into the chest, meaning they can operate without having to cut people open. But a new advance means that instead of boring old 2D, surgeons can see what they’re doing via 3D goggles, improving their hand-eye coordination and meaning they can operate more quickly and accurately as a result.
It sounds like something from the new Star Wars, but it’s real: used together, a laser, a camera, and the venom of a deathstalker scorpion can detect cancer. Malignant brain tumours are usually fatal, in part because they’re so hard to see, meaning surgeons can never be sure they’ve removed all of the cancerous tissue. By injecting a synthetic peptide based on scorpion venom (early testing used the real thing), using a laser to activate the tumour (this makes it glow, but it can’t be seen by the naked eye), and then taking a picture, the outline of a brain tumour becomes clear. It’s not in use yet, but clinical trials start soon.
The people’s choice winner of this year’s Google Impact Challenge, these clever specs consist of a video camera attached to a pair of glasses. The camera transmits images of the wearer’s surroundings to a tablet, where a computer program emphasises the outlines of objects and people and sends those images back to the glasses. As 90% of blind people have at least a little vision, this allows the wearer to make out shapes. It’s technically more of a mobility aid than a medical device, but it could still allow the 2 million-plus people in the UK who are experiencing sight loss to have greater independence.
Scientists had a gut feeling (ha) that there was a better alternative to endoscopies and colonoscopies – tests for ulcers and other digestive issues that involve a tube with a camera attached being shoved down the throat and where the sun doesn’t shine, respectively. So they came up with the idea for the PillCam, a small swallowable camera that takes photos on its way through the body (up to 18 a SECOND), which are then transmitted to a belt worn by the patient. Once it’s finished its job, it’s simply flushed away.
It can take years for psychiatrists to accurately diagnose people with severe mental health problems, as symptoms of different illnesses overlap and patients in distress may not be able to communicate the exact nature of their experience. But Scottish scientists used a camera to track eye movements while patients looked at images on a computer, and found that it was easiest to distinguish people with Schizophrenia as they didn’t study photos fully, while those experiencing bipolar disorder and depression had subtle but noticeable differences. The test isn’t yet widely available, but its inventors claim a 95% accuracy rate.
We’ve written before about smartphone urine analysis for kidney infections and diabetes, but this test is out for your blood. Engineers from Cornell University designed a cholesterol testing kit that works with any smartphone once a special attachment is added to the camera. Users need to take a small drop of blood, dip it in a testing strip, and photograph it, and then it can be sent straight to your doctor.
Last year, German scientists debuted the prototype of a new multispectral fluorescence camera system. This should make it easier for doctors to remove tumours or operate on other blockages. When fluorescent dye is injected into patients, it lights up cancer cells (or any other specific type of cell) on a video screen in real time, allowing doctors to clearly see if they’ve removed all traces. It even allows for the use of multiple dyes, so that doctors can avoid arteries and other areas their scalpel should skip.
The Micro Phone Lens (pictured above) attaches to the camera (5 mp minimum) of a phone or tablet, turning it into a portable microscope. Designed by mechanical engineer Thomas Larson, it was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and he’s now working on a model 10 times more effective. It’s much smaller than other technologies that turn devices into microscopes and at $14.99 (around £9), it’s also cheaper. That means it has the potential to advance medical diagnosis in developing countries: it’s currently being trialled in Kenya.
Who knew? All along, hospitals haven’t needed expensive kit, they’ve just needed a webcam and a laser pointer. Yep, a team from the University of Texas were able to replicate blood flow test results in the lab using stuff you can pick up at PC World, making a saving of around £2300. The laser lights up the area to be scanned and two 40mm camera lenses attached to the webcam’s sensors reflect its beam, capturing an image that’s comparable to existing equipment.
Using camera technology for medical purposes isn’t all about capturing photos and video. Eve Biomedical in the U.S plans to make the first DNA test for under $100 in the next couple of years, using the same kind of semi-conductor chip as those found in smartphone cameras. (For comparison, the human genome project took 11 years and $3 billion.) This should give us specific information about what diseases we’re susceptible to, allowing us to make lifestyle alterations where possible, and could lead to increasingly personalised healthcare in future.