Friday September 21, 2018

Brian Gitta: A Malaria Test That Would Not Need Blood Samples

The new malaria test kit works by shining a red beam of light onto a finger

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A health service worker takes a blood sample for a malaria test in Dajabon, Dominican Republic, on the border with Haiti, Oct. 6, 2009. A test that doesn't require a needle or blood has won the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation
A health service worker takes a blood sample for a malaria test in Dajabon, Dominican Republic, on the border with Haiti, Oct. 6, 2009. A test that doesn't require a needle or blood has won the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, VOA
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Languishing with fever and frustrated by delays in diagnosing his illness, Brian Gitta came up with a bright idea: a malaria test that would not need blood samples or specialized laboratory technicians.

That inspiration has won the 25-year-old Ugandan computer scientist a prestigious engineering prize for a noninvasive malaria test kit that he hopes will be widely used across Africa.

For developing the reusable test kit known as Matibabu, Gitta this month was awarded the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. The award by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain comes with $32,940.

Malaria is the biggest killer in Africa, and the sub-Saharan region accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s malaria cases and deaths. Cases rose to 216 million in 2016, up from 211 million cases in 2015, according to the latest World Malaria Report, released late last year. Malaria deaths fell by 1,000, to 445,000.

The mosquito-borne disease is a challenge to prevent, with increasing resistance reported to both drugs and insecticides.

No needles

The new malaria test kit works by shining a red beam of light onto a finger to detect changes in the shape, color and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by malaria. The results are sent within a minute to a computer or mobile phone linked to the device.

A Portugal-based firm has been contracted to produce the components for Matibabu, the Swahili word for “treatment.”

“It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development, in this case by improving health care,” Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation judge, said in a statement. “Matibabu is simply a game changer.”

A woman carrying a baby holds a treated mosquito net during a malaria prevention action at Ajah in Eti Osa East district of Lagos, Nigeria, April 21, 2016.
A woman carrying a baby holds a treated mosquito net during a malaria prevention action at Ajah in Eti Osa East district of Lagos, Nigeria, April 21, 2016. VOA

Gitta and five colleagues, all trained in computer science or engineering, developed an affordable, bloodless test that does not need a specialist to operate. The new test will be suitable for use in Africa’s rural areas, where most cases of malaria occur, because it will not depend on sending blood samples to a distant laboratory.

Others are also working to fill the need for quicker, easier malaria tests. There are more than 200 rapid diagnostic test products for malaria on the market, according to the WHO.

80 percent accurate now

The fifth-generation prototype of Matibabu, with an accuracy rate of 80 percent, is still a work in process. Gitta and his group aim to refine the device until it achieves an accuracy rate exceeding 90 percent.

Matibabu has yet to be formally subjected to all the necessary clinical trials under Ugandan safety and ethics regulations.

“It excites me as a clinician,” said Medard Bitekyerezo, a Ugandan physician who chairs the National Drug Authority. “I think the National Drug Authority will approve it.”

The government should invest in the project so that its developers don’t struggle financially, he added. The unit cost of the latest prototype is about $100.

Despite the optimism, Gitta has found a hurdle he didn’t anticipate: Some patients are skeptical of unfamiliar technology.

“The doctors will tell you that some people will not leave the hospital until their children have been pricked, and until they have been given anti-malaria drugs and painkillers, even if the kid is not sick,” he said.

Also read: From Radio Signals A Pill Could Tell About Gut Health And Help Doctors

“We think we are developing for hospitals first, so that people can first get attached to the brand, and gain the trust of patients over time.” (VOA)

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Scientists Try To Map Animal Genes To Save Them From Extinction Down the Line

The project has similarities with the Earth BioGenome Project, which seeks to catalog the genomes for 1.5 million species.

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This undated photo provided by NOAA Fisheries, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows alewives, a species of river herring in North Kingstown, R.I. The federal government's National Marine Fisheries Service is looking at the health of the populations of alewives and blueback herring to see if the little fish should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. VOA

A group of scientists unveiled the first results Thursday of an ambitious effort to map the genes of tens of thousands of animal species, a project they said could help save animals from extinction down the line.

The scientists are working with the Genome 10,000 consortium on the Vertebrate Genomes Project, which is seeking to map the genomes of all 66,000 species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish on Earth. Genome 10,000 has members at more than 50 institutions around the globe, and the Vertebrate Genomes Project last year.

The consortium Thursday released the first 15 such maps, ranging from the Canada lynx to the kakapo, a flightless parrot native to New Zealand.

Future conservation

The genome is the entire set of genetic material that is present in an organism. The release of the first sets is “a statement to the world that what we want to accomplish is indeed feasible,” said Harris Lewin, a professor of evolution at University of California, Davis, who is working on the project.

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The work is intriguing because it could inform future conservation efforts of jeopardized species. VOA

“The time has come, but of course it’s only the beginning,” Lewin said.

The work will help inform future conservation of jeopardized species, scientists working on the project said. The first 14 species to be mapped also include the duck-billed platypus, two bat species and the zebra finch. The zebra finch was the one species for which both sexes were mapped, bringing the total to 15.

Sequencing the genome of tens of thousands of animals could easily take 10 years, said Sadye Paez, program director for the project. But giving scientists access to this kind of information could help save rare species because it would give conservationists and biologists a new set of tools, she said.

Paez described the project as an effort to “essentially communicate a library of life.”

Three sequencing hubs

Tanya Lama, a doctoral candidate in environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, coordinated the effort to sequence the lynx genome. The wild cat is the subject of debate about its conservation status in the United States, and better understanding of genetics can better protect its future, Lama said.

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Genome 10,000 has members at more than 50 institutions around the globe, and the Vertebrate Genomes Project last year. Pixabay

“It’s going to help us plan for the future, help us generate tools for monitoring population health, and help us inform conservation strategy,” she said.

The project has three “genome sequencing hubs,” including Rockefeller University in New York, the Sanger Institute outside Cambridge, England, and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, organizers said.

The work is intriguing because it could inform future conservation efforts of jeopardized species, said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity who is not involved in the project. More information about animals’ genetics could lead to better understanding of how animals resist disease or cope with changes in the environment, she said.

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Sequencing the genome of tens of thousands of animals could easily take 10 years, said Sadye Paez, program director for the project. Pixabay

“I think what’s interesting to me from a conservation aspect is just what we might be able to discern about the genetic diversity within a species,” Matteson said.

Also Read: British Scientists Use Sunlight And Convert it to Fuel

The project has similarities with the Earth BioGenome Project, which seeks to catalog the genomes for 1.5 million species. Lewin chairs that project’s working group. The Vertebrate Genomes Project will contribute to that effort. (VOA)