Atlanta At The Center Of Innovation In Global Health Diagnostics
With smartphones changing nearly every aspect of consumer life for the developed world, an unintended benefit of these powerful handheld computers is that they are being adapted for uses to improve health for people in developing countries.
From smartphone microscopes that detect parasites in blood in minutes to tablet-based field scanners that detect swelling to help treat a disfiguring disease, global health diagnostics are transforming disease elimination programs around the world.
Atlanta has been at the forefront of helping develop and implement these technologies. One example being used by Decatur-based The Task Force for Global Health is the LoaScope, a microscope that attaches to smartphones and can be used in the field to diagnose parasitic infections in minutes, all from one small drop of blood.
The technology saves time, improves accuracy, and reduces costs associated with laboratory tests. The LoaScope is being used in Africa in river blindness programs by helping public health workers determine who should and shouldn’t receive the medicine. Treatment for river blindness can have adverse effects if administered to people to who are also infected with another parasitic disease called Loa loa. The LoaScope can detect the presence of loa loa worms in the blood in about three minutes.
“This work sets the stage for expanding the use of mobile microscopy to improve diagnosis and treatment of other diseases, both in low-resource areas and eventually back in the United States,” says University of California at Berkeley bioengineering professor Daniel Fletcher, PhD, whose lab invented the LoaScope.
Health care workers in Africa have called the LoaScope “revolutionary,” according to an article by Brian Rinker in Kaiser Health News about how Silicon Valley’s smarts are being applied to age-old diseases like river blindness. A major advantage is that young people in low-income countries often have their own smartphones, even in remote villages, so they can quickly learn how to use these technologies for use in public health settings. Development of the LoaScope was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley.
At The Task Force, advances such as the LoaScope are filling a gap in diagnostics for programs to eliminate neglected tropical diseases.
“It’s engineering technological solutions to global health problems,” says Patrick Lammie, PhD, a senior scientist in The Task Force’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center. “It’s making diagnostics more user friendly and, in many cases, miniaturized for better use in the field.”
He added, “The smartphone was not designed or intended for this use but it’s ended up being enormously helpful,” Lammie says.
Another example of innovative global health diagnostics is a tablet-based scanner developed by the Atlanta-based company Lymphatech to treat breast cancer patients, but now is being used by public health workers to measure edema, or swelling, in patients with lymphatic filariasis in Asia and Africa.
This neglected tropical disease can cause debilitating disfigurement, but can be treated. Assessing whether medicines are working includes assessing reductions in the swelling of limbs. The Lymphatech scanner uses a 3D depth sensor imaging technology loaded onto iPads, making it hand-held and low cost.
Brandon Dixon, PhD, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and co-founder of LymphaTech, led a research team at Georgia Tech that developed the technology used in the scanner. He says, “many of these depth sensors weren’t necessarily developed with medical applications in mind, so we needed to get it to the resolution necessary for clinical applications.”
One of the barriers to the development of new global health diagnostics is the lack of resources to support the development of these tools. Developing countries that need diagnostics often cannot afford them. To address the need will require more innovation and collaboration from academia, industry, government, and nongovernmental organizations.
To explore the issue, The Task Force for Global Health and the Georgia Global Health Alliance are hosting a symposium, “Mobile to Multiplex Opportunities for Accelerating Innovation in Global Health Diagnostics,” on Thursday, April 11, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. at The Task Force for Global Health at 330 W Ponce de Leon Ave, Decatur, GA 30030.
The program will feature experts from The Task Force, academia, and government who will discuss the LoaScope, Lymphatech scanner, and sophisticated molecular diagnostics that are being used to eliminate neglected tropical diseases and understand the causes of childhood mortality. They will also discuss opportunities for accelerating innovation in the space.
The keynote address, “Harnessing High Tech for Global Health,” will be by LoaScope inventor Dan Fletcher.
Other panelists include:
Dianna Blau, DVM, PhD, laboratory and diagnostics leader, Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) program (seconded from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
J. Brandon Dixon, PhD, associate professor, bioengineering, Georgia Tech
Jessica Fairley, MD, infectious disease specialist, Emory University
Patrick Lammie, PhD, senior scientist, Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center, The Task Force for Global Health