From the penthouses of Park Avenue to the remote villages of rural Africa, women may be finding a whole lot more support in their bra straps — all thanks to the universally versatile technology known as the cellular phone.
Using the cell phone as a type of transmission device, Israeli researcher Boris Rubinsky has begun to develop many portable imaging tools, including a type of mobile mammogram. To scan breast tissue in areas where mammogram technologies do not exist, for example, local nurses would simply utilize a bra-like device connected to a cell phone and capable of scanning tissue. The mobile phone in turn would transmit electrode readings to a centrally located technician, who would then process and return the image, according to Rubinsky, a professor of biomedical engineering at Hebrew University who still maintains a laboratory at the University of California – Berkeley. Imaging machines such as those used for mammograms, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, x-rays and ultrasounds are tremendously bulky and expensive, he explained, and they are often unavailable in poorer regions of the world.
“Right now about 20 percent of the diseases of the people in the world cannot be properly treated without medical imagery,” Rubinsky said. “Medical imaging is essential for the treatment of diseases.”
Rubinsky founded the Center for Bioengineering at Hebrew University in Jerusalem two years ago, aiming to develop technologies that would help underdeveloped countries by identifying real needs that were unsatisfied around the world. With his combined team of nine Israeli and Palestinian students at Hebrew University and five students at Berkeley, he began to address some of these issues, including the dangerous absence of medical imaging tools.
Citing statistics from the World Health Organization, Rubinsky said that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the world ’s population does not have access to medical imagery, and approximately 50 percent of medical devices in underdeveloped nations are missing parts or not functioning at all.
But in terms of world prevalence, cell phones are just about the opposite.
“In addition our research has shown cellular phones are ubiquitous essentially in every part of the world,” Rubinsky said, adding that mobile minutes are often used as currency in Kenya, among other countries.
“It does not require an infrastructure,” he added, referring to global wireless networks. Seeking out something robust and omnipresent, the team thought of the cellular phone, which is useable in nearly any locale.
“The cell phone is so popular today, that even in remote villages that have little more than electricity, you can get cell phone coverage,” said Yair Granot, 37, one of Rubinsky’s Berkeley graduate students, who is about to receive his Ph.D. in biophysics. “There are villages in India that don’t even have land lines, but they already have cellular phones.”
Rather than hauling a huge MRI or mammogram machine to these remote villages, Rubinsky and his team decided to break the machine down into smaller, portable components that doctors could easily transport to even the most isolated communities.
To successfully process a picture, any medical imaging system must contain three parts: the device that is in touch with the patient, the data–processing device or computer and a monitor for image display, Rubinsky said. Typically, electrical wires connect all three of these parts to create a bulky machine, but Rubinsky and his team were able to replace the wires with the mobile connectivity of a cell phone.
“The costs of the cellular phone are negligible compared the cost of these devices,” he said.
In the same method that a cell phone sends a text message, the handset can transfer data generated by the acquisition device to a computer at a powerful processing facility, which can technically be located anywhere in the world, Rubinsky explained. There, a technician can use the data to process the image and then send the photograph back to the cellular phone in a picture message.
“We’ve reduced the complexity of the system,” Rubinsky said. “For technical purposes it’s the same device; it’s just distributed around the world.”
Instead of bringing $17,000 worth of equipment to a remote village, the doctor would now only need to bring a small acquisition device and a cell phone. Because the quality of the image is a function of the number of pixels, he added, the resolution of the resultant image on the cell phone screen is equal to or better than the image produced by an MRI machine.
When Rubinsky tried using his simple LG phone in a simulation for breast cancer detection, he found that the process worked flawlessly. “Now, one can detect breast cancer at home,” he said, admitting that although this technology is not quite as effective as a mammogram itself, it is much better than doing nothing.
“You can have alternatives that will give you something, which is better than nothing,” Granot agreed.
In addition to processing medical imagery, Rubinsky and his team are extending their cell phone technologies to detect internal bleeding by measuring electrical properties instead of processing imaging data. According to Rubinsky, one in four women die in childbirth due to internal bleeding, something that would be easily preventable through a similar acquisition device that is also connected to central processing systems through a cell phone. For head injuries, he has invented a hat-like device that similarly measures electrical currents to report signs of bleeding.
“If there’s an injury, you could report ahead on the cellular phone that someone has a head injury or internal bleeding,” Rubinsky said, stressing that this technology would be useful in modern ambulances and clinics, in addition to third world locations.
As his two labs continue to develop technologies that will benefit patients globally, Rubinsky gives much of the credit to his students, whom he says work together seamlessly, regardless of their Israeli, Palestinian or other diverse backgrounds.
“The creativity is bursting through the seams,” he said.
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