Three Case Western Reserve University faculty members recently received significant funding from the National Centre for Accelerated Innovation (NCAI) to conduct projects and develop novel technologies targeting sickle cell anaemia, malaria, and cystic fibrosis (CF).
NCAI supports new technologies and innovative products that have been targeted as priority by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The three researchers selected by NCAI were Umut Gurkan, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Brian T. Grimberg, assistant professor of international health, and Miklos Gratzl, associate professor of biomedical engineering.
Gratzl and his team are set to develop and clinically test a device for CF diagnosis in newborns at two weeks of age, improving existing methods which can only be performed after they are three months old. The current most-used CF test measures chloride in sweat, and the reason for the age restriction is that the volume of sweat required is larger than can be obtained from a newborn. In contrast, Gratzl’s technology needs only two micro-liters of sweat to be able to proceed with the CF testing, which lowers the test’s eligibility bar to newborns just two weeks old.
‘CF is a genetic disease that leads to the secretion of abnormally thick mucus,’ Gratzl said in a press release. ‘This causes obstructions in the airways and recurring pneumonia. If treatment begins after the presentation of symptoms, which typically occurs about three months of age or later, irreversible damage has already occurred. Our diagnostic technology will make it possible to begin treatment shortly after birth.’
Gurkan will focus on sickle cell disease by testing a new technology in Ghana which can be used onsite. HemeChip is a mobile device capable of detecting a series of genetic blood disorders at only US$2 per screening with a 10-minute wait.
‘Although sickle cell newborn screening is standard in this country, very few infants are tested in Africa because of the expense and lack of trained personnel to carry out conventional tests,’ Gurkan said. ‘This new mobile technology is an easy-to-use, cost-effective tool with worldwide applicability, potentially saving many lives.’
Grimberg, in turn, will improve the sensitivity and portability of a malaria diagnostic device that can scan blood for high-sensitivity magneto-optical detection of the malaria pigment (hemozoin crystals). Grimberg’s project will hopefully lead to a more field-ready device after testing the prototype on human samples in Peru, as part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) device-approval process.
‘More than three billion people live with the threat of malaria throughout the world,’ Grimberg said. ‘While improvements in terms of morbidity, mortality, and transmission have been achieved in the past five years, malaria parasites continue to evade elimination. Current malaria diagnosis methods are slow, expensive, and sometimes inaccurate. Our portable device will cost 51 cents per diagnosis compared to US$3.18 for microscopy when including all costs and labour and allow for onsite detection of malaria.’
There are nearly 20 million births every year in sub-Saharan Africa, and the WHO estimates that 70% of sickle cell disease-attributed deaths could be prevented through early detection, as could malaria and CF.