New Tools Deliver Medical Diagnoses, Fast, Cheap and in the Field
Monday, June 29, 2015
Reliable electricity is a rare commodity in some parts of Guinea, which means some traditional medical equipment often is useless. So researchers there are using a new tool to identify Ebola cases: a portable diagnostic machine that fits in a suitcase and runs on a solar battery.
The suitcase technology is part of a growing push among scientists and startups to develop simplified, low-cost diagnostics for use in the field, particularly in remote or low-income regions that lack electricity or sophisticated lab equipment. Other examples include smaller, simplified versions of the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, machines that most Western labs use to look for traces of pathogens’ DNA, and diagnostic test tubes that can be activated with body heat.
The technology aims to facilitate on-the-spot diagnosis of infectious disease, water contamination or other problems through DNA detection, without the need to ship samples days or weeks away to big-city labs. While much of the technology is aimed at improving health care in the developing world, researchers say it should also prove useful for schools and other cash-poor institutions where the science of genetics is being studied.
“We live in an era of DNA, where everyone is interested in DNA. Yet the vast majority of us has never gotten our hands on DNA technology,” saysSebastian Kraves, co-founder of Amplyus LLC, a Cambridge, Mass., startup developing some of the new tools. The goal, he says, is to “bring the technology into areas where it’s most needed.”
The suitcase diagnostic kit was designed by Ahmed Abd El Wahed, a researcher in Germany. He first started working on it at the request of health officials in Saudi Arabia, who were looking for a way to test crowds for a deadly respiratory virus during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The Saudis lost interest in the project, he says, but the U.K. government and the Wellcome Trust, a London-based foundation, provided a combined £500,000 ($775,000) to develop the suitcase for use in detecting Ebola in West Africa.
The instrument tests oral swabs or blood samples for genetic traces of the Ebola virus—a more accurate method than testing for antibodies—and issues a result within 30 minutes. At the request of the Guinean government, researchers are using two of the machines to test dead bodies for Ebola, so that any infected corpses can be dealt with safely, without transmitting the disease to others.