New App Detects Parasites

CellScope Loa detects worms and is faster and less expensive than traditional methods


They can help prevent drunk driving, monitor babies and heat hands. And now, an iPhone app can also detect parasitic worms.

Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley have created an app that can detect parasitic worms — an advancement that could save lives in Central and West Africa.

The app, called CellScope Loa, can detect a parasite called Loa loa, which usually lives alongside other worms that cause conditions like blindness and paralysis. Loa loa makes it difficult to treat these other worms, despite not being deadly on its own, reports NPR.

According to the World Health Organization, 300,000 people are living with blindness as a result of a worm called O. volvulus. Another worm, W. bancroftiis, causes paralysis. The medicine used to treat blindness-causing worms may cause brain damage when Loa loa is also in the system. But detecting Loa loa, a worm that hides in the lungs and can only be seen from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., requires expensive lab equipment and computers.

CellScope Loa could eliminate those problems.

"The traditional way of making the measurement involves taking blood smears, looking at them under a conventional microscope by a trained individual, and counting [the worms] manually," said Daniel Fletcher, PhD, a bioengineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and head of the team that developed the new app, told NPR.

With CellScope, a blood sample is put into a box with microprocessors and an LED light. The iPhone's camera acts as a microscope and takes a video of the worms — counting them in only three minutes. This means around 200 people can be tested daily, according to a National Institutes of Health press release.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Loa loa can be treated with drugs called diethylcarbamazine (DEC) or albendazole (Albenza). These treatments can become complicated, depending on the age and severity of the worms. DEC has a small chance of causing brain damage.

These worms are spread by flies and usually cause itchiness and lumps. After full growth, they can crawl out of the eyes.

According to this study, this new iPhone test may provide help for those at risk of blindness from parasites. It may also lead to further studies on how to kill Loa loa at the same time as other worms without harm, Dr. Fletcher and team said.

This study was published May 6 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The National Institutes of Health funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.