Magnetism and light have been combined in a test that can diagnose malaria in under two minutes without the need to take blood.
The new test, which has yet to undergo clinical trials, won a prize for entrepreneurs hosted by Britain’s Prince Andrew on Feb. 28.
“What we’re trying to do is to bridge the gap between local communities and effective diagnosis,” Shafik Sekitto, an engineer from Uganda and co-founder of the device, said in an interview.
Pitch@Palace Africa 2.0, an event hosted by Britain’s Duke of York in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize, was launched in 2014 to help connect entrepreneurs who use technology and engineering with potential supporters such as CEOs, mentors and business partners.
During the award event at St James’s Palace in London, 15 innovators from across the continent each had three minutes to make a case for support to develop their product—inventions targeting developing world challenges in healthcare, farming, energy, education and finance.
Sekitto, an engineer from Uganda, developed the winning innovation, Matibabu, to make malaria diagnosis easier. Africa bears the brunt of the global malaria burden, accounting for some 90% of cases and deaths.
He worked on the device with six friends from Makerere University in Uganda. They built a prototype by combining their skills in research, engineering, computer science and business—and backed by advisors with expertise in parasitology and physics.
Matibabu uses light and magnetism to differentiate between the blood of an infected and a healthy person. Unlike ‘gold standard’ tests that work by detecting molecules produced by the malaria parasite, it deploys polarised light to detect hemozoin crystals, which are by-products excreted by the parasite.
It does this in less than two minutes—four times the speed of the fastest among current tests on the market, according to Sekitto. The results are sent from the device, which clips onto a patient’s finger, to a mobile phone. “It’s just plug and play,” he said.
Rapid malaria tests can already give results with good speed and without specialized equipment, according to Philip Rosenthal, professor at the University of California School of Medicine and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee at the Worldwide Antimalarial Resistance Network.
But the real key to Matibabu is that it doesn’t require a blood sample, he says, so a patient could potentially test for the disease on their own, at home.
“This is really a paradigm shift for malaria, to make diagnosis in the community rather than the clinic,” says Rosenthal. “That could be fantastic, but I think we should move slowly and carefully in that direction.”
In the meantime, the priority is to rigorously evaluate the device against other diagnostics used across Africa. As it stands, the device can accurately pick up four out of five cases of illness, which Rosenthal says is “concerning”, because 20 per cent of cases would be missed. It’s crucial to have a detailed evaluation of sensitivity and specificity, he stresses.
The possibility of diagnosing malaria quickly with a non-invasive technique would be very exciting, according to Kevin Marsh, professor at the University of Oxford, chair of the WHO Malaria policy advisory committee and former director of the KEMRI Wellcome Programme in Kenya. Marsh agrees that “the key now is to show in carefully conducted trials that this approach has comparable performance to the current widely used methods.”
The team behind Matibabu is aiming to commercialize the kit in the next year. “We’re heading for clinical trials in the next few months, where we’ll validate our device and be able to obtain the right medical certificates and licences for commercialization,” says Sekitto.
According to Pitch@Palace, previous winners have expanded their revenues and reach, or made valuable connections. “I’ve met very many people that can help me push this product to the market,” Sekitto said after the event.
All 15 start-ups who took part in the event have received guidance and are to be entered into the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize with a winner due to be announced in spring.