Engineering the End of Malaria?

by: EditorSep 05, 2017comments

The Pacific Standard online magazine reports that the interdisciplinary teams of the Intellectual Ventures Lab has put some of the profits from licensing patents into developing breakthrough health-care technologies that nobody else has been able to pursue. This lab’s website states that they “believe in the power of independent thinking and unconventional approaches to problem solving. IV Lab’s broadly interdisciplinary teams collaborate with experts from around the word and partner to invent, investigate, and inspire.”

One of the breakthrough technologies they are piloting has hopes for “Engineering the End of Malaria.” In the Pacific Standard article of that title they tell this story:

  • Tens of thousands of times a year, a technician places a drop of blood on a slide and peers at it under a microscope, searching for malaria parasites. Making a definitive diagnosis requires the technician to look at up to 300 different fields of view over roughly half an hour. This process is repeated over and over, day after day, on every continent except Antarctica. It’s tedious work, but it saves lives. Malaria parasites infect over 200 million people and kill 400,000 every year, mostly children in Africa.

  • Trained and experienced malaria microscopists are rare, however. Fewer than 100 people in the world have the World Health Organization’s highest certification, Level 1. “At very low infection levels, finding malaria parasites in a blood sample is the equivalent of finding a handful of marbles in a football field in about 20 minutes,” says Cary Champlin, an electrical engineer with the Intellectual Ventures Lab in Bellevue, Washington. He and his research team believe the process can be automated. Computers can learn to recognize faces and fingerprints—why not malaria parasites?

  • Usually a creative technical solution like this runs up against the unforgiving economics of health care in the developing world: There’s so little money to be made that commercial companies don’t have an incentive to invest in solutions.”

  • As a proposed solution to the lack of manpower and finances, the Intellectual Ventures lab states and asks: “Computers can learn to recognize faces and fingerprints—why not malaria parasites?” In fact, researchers have been able to do this and are conducting trials right now. The article concludes,

  • The device could … make … it possible to diagnose asymptomatic carriers in the field, letting them know to seek treatment. “This test could truly change the approach to malaria elimination,” Bell says. The device will still have to be inexpensive—IVL is aiming for a price of $1 each—and the demands of the market dictate a thin profit margin. Even so, IVL’s unique ability to back otherwise unfundable research projects makes it more likely the device will get into doctors’ hands eventually.

  • Read the rest of this intriguing article HERE.