Paul Baker/the Gauntlet

Call friends, surf the web, listen to music and . . . save lives?

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The new 3G Apple iPhone can now add saving lives to its extensive list of features. Dr. Ross Mitchell, a newly appointed industry chair in medical imaging informatics at the University of Calgary is working to let doctors use their phones to diagnose patients faster.

Currently, doctors must be at a $100,000 workstation to see 3D MRIs or scans of patient's organs. Mitchell succeeded a year and a half ago in building a server that does the same work as these stations and then sends the images in real time to a laptop. Now his team of research associates and graduate students have programmed similar software for iPhones.

"We ran into a problem one day with a woman who was being treated for stroke in the emergency department at Foothills and it took too long to get 3D reconstructions of the blood vessels in her brain," he said. "As part of the iCORE chair, I got one of these servers in my lab and we wondered, 'If it can drive a web browser, I wonder if it can drive the new iPhone 3G.'"

Mitchell and his server project are funded by Informatics Circle of Research Excellence, Calgary Scientific Inc. and the U of C. iCORE, founded by the Government of Alberta to fund 31 research chairs, contributed $750,000 and has helped raise more.

"Mitchell is in a position where he can take computer science and turn it into something of commercial value with his partners at Calgary Scientific," said iCORE president Dr. Randy Goebel. "He's an instance of someone who has been able to create things in a laboratory and clinical setting that actually make a difference in reality."

iCORE has committed $80 million in the last 10 years to public research. Calgary Scientific provided $1 million and the U of C $375,000 to Mitchell.

After the server was up, making it iPhone compatible was relatively inexpensive. Senior research associate Mark Simpson wrote most of the software.

"It was about two months of work compressed into four weeks, a lot of late nights," he said, pointing out the phone could just barely run the complex program. "Right now they have to transport the patient to the machine or they just don't show the patient the scan, but with this, the doctor can take the scan right to the patient bedside and show them."

Mitchell ensured patients that no personal information would be saved on the phones and very strict security protocols were followed.

"Some of [the physicians] came to me and said it could be equivalent to the stethoscope, something they all carry in their pocket," he said. "It just gives them easy access to critical data wherever and whenever they want."

Mitchell explained the switch from conventional processors to graphics cards in the server will make the technology more accessible. Some of the workstations will be replaced with servers that run on $200 to $600 graphics cards.

"The gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and that's where millions of dollars go into the development of the gaming cards," said Mitchell. "We're leveraging this inexpensive and ubiquitous computing power and trying to use it for medical purposes rather than just first-person shooters."

Simpson's next project involves virtual biospying, which would allow doctors to use scans to diagnose cancers instead of more invasive procedures.

"Every time you drill a hole into somebody there are complications like infection," he said. "My grandmother had a stroke, my father had cancer and these things help people. I'm just trying to make things a little bit better."