Experts from non-profit organizations, the private sector and academia came together at a symposium hosted at The Task Force headquarters in Atlanta to discuss strides made in diagnostics to eliminate neglected tropical diseases and understand the causes of childhood mortality.
Dan Fletcher, PhD, who chairs the bioengineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the keynote address, “Harnessing High-Tech for Global Health.” Fletcher is the inventor of the LoaScope, a microscope that attaches to smartphones, which The Task Force uses in the field to diagnose the parasitic infection quickly.
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 receive the medicine. Treatment for river blindness can have adverse effects if administered to people 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. Both river blindness and loa loa are part of the family of diseases called neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which affect more than a billion people in some of the poorest and remotest parts of the world.
Fletcher, in his address, noted the lack of a gold standard in diagnostics for NTDs, and said forums such as the symposium presented opportunities to harness collective energies and ideas across sectors. “The challenge is to look for places where we can apply these technologies that we develop,” he said.
At The Task Force, advances such as the LoaScope are filling a gap in diagnostics for NTD elimination programs.
“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 who was also a panelist. “It’s making diagnostics more user friendly and, in many cases, miniaturized for better use in the field. The smartphone was not designed or intended for this use but it’s ended up being enormously helpful.”
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 also being used by public health workers to measure edema, or swelling, in patients with lymphatic filariasis (LF) in Asia and Africa.
The scanner uses a 3D depth sensor imaging technology that is loaded on an IPad to assess whether medicines are working to reduce lymphedema.
J. Brandon Dixon, PhD, a panelist, co-founded LympaTech, and said engaging with the student community was important for low-cost technology solutions. Dixon led a research team at Georgia Tech that developed the technology used in the scanner. He is also an associate professor in the school’s mechanical engineering department.
Apart from Dixon and Lammie, panelists included Dianna Blau, DVM, PhD, laboratory and diagnostics leader, Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) program, and Jessica Fairley, MD, infectious disease specialist, Emory University.
All panelists agreed that a key barrier 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 and these experts agreed that more innovation and collaboration was needed from academia, industry, government, and nongovernmental organizations.