A Revolutionary Malaria Diagnostic Test
By 2015, an estimated 500 million smartphone users across the world will be using some sort of mobile healthcare application, according to industry figures cited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In the same timeframe, an estimated three million people will have lost their lives to malaria. One mobile healthcare app which may make a dent in malaria deaths is Lifelens, a new app that can help diagnose malaria with 94% accuracy from a drop of blood.
“Malaria will kill two children every minute this year,” says Lifelens team member Cy Khormaee from the Harvard School of Business. Khormaee is one of five graduate students who came together from across academic disciplines and four universities to become the co-founders of Lifelens. According to Lifelens, approximately $1 billion a year is spent treating malaria—but more than half of that cost is wasted on people who don’t need it. Current diagnostic tests for malaria are only 40% accurate. “The result is a test with a 60% incidence of false positives. Consequently, each false positive will result in medication being delivered to a patient with no need for treatment–effectively wasting that dosage,” says a statement on the site. Additionally, Lifelens contends that treatment of uninfected individuals also increases the likelihood of the parasites' developing resistance to artemisinin-based combination treatment (ACT)—the WHO-recommended first line treatment for the disease.
Still in the testing stage, Lifelens uses Microsoft Windows Phone 7 software combined with an inexpensive (less than $50) durable spherical microscopic lens attachment which easily fits on to a smart phone. The camera + lense combination produces high resolution images that can actually show blood cells (details in Lifelens' overview video on YouTube). According to Physicians Weekly, “the cost of conventional rapid diagnostic tests is $3.40 per patient. Using Lifelens, the estimated cost is $0.56 per patient.” Anyone who can operate a basic cell phone can use the app. No special training or language skills are necessary. And it doesn’t need an Internet connection. Lifelens will be sold directly to the medical service administrators of governments and NGOs involved in malaria testing for further distribution to health service providers in the field.
For those who can’t view the video, here’s how Lifelens works:
The user takes a small blood drop from a patient and smears it on a slide stained with a special chemical that turns the malaria parasite purple. The user then takes a picture using the cell phone with the special lens attachment that provides 350 times magnification. The camera detects any malaria parasites present in the blood, and determines the density and progression of the infection. The user also can upload the data (when, or if, an Internet connection is available) with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) coordinates, so that healthcare workers or scientists can see trends as well as where malaria outbreaks are occurring. There is also a web portal feature that can lay all the case data over a mobile map, giving a snapshot of where malaria is clustered globally.
Lifelens is not just a theoretical concept, say the developers. “Every aspect of the design from the lens technology to the computer vision analysis tools exist today and are ready to go to market.” And the team, which recently won a US$75,000 Microsoft Imagine Cup Grant award, is hoping to use the technology to diagnose other diseases. “Our project is moving along and developing into a health platform for a variety of different diseases. We are working with companies to push down costs for devices and developing partnerships with organizations with healthcare volunteers in order to expand our reach. We have had an overwhelming response to conduct field testing, but we are still undergoing additional hardware testing,” writes team member Wilson To in a recent comment.
Note: The Health Innovations blog series highlights interesting new approaches and products that have the potential to make a difference to the lives of people in low-income countries. Due to their innovative nature, most of these approaches and products have not been extensively evaluated or tested, and much of the information is taken directly from the web sites of the inventors or developers, or from secondary sources. K4Health has no relationship with the developers and does not endorse or have an official opinion of their products or approaches.
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