Amplino may be the ultimate garage project. Three DIY bio-hackers have created a mobile malaria testing kit which they claim can identify different strains of malaria with higher accuracy than existing rapid diagnostic tests.
The testing device is connected via Bluetooth to a mobile phone, making it possible to track malaria outbreaks and the spread of particular strains. The team just won 40,000 EUR ($52,000) in the Vodafone Mobile for Good competition to further develop the kit.
Amplion’s young founders Jelmer Knossen, Wouter Bruins and Pieter van Boheemen have backgrounds in bio-informatics/mechanical engineering, cell biology and functional genomics respectively. The group became fascinated by the DIYBio movement which blends biology expertise with electronics, software development and open source principles. Amplino’s team started to look at a technique called PCR which copies a segment of DNA billions of times so that it can be analysed. PCR is a well-established technique used in criminal DNA testing, disease diagnosis and even testing whether food is halal.
A 600$ “Build it yourself” OpenPCR machine already existed. The team decided to go one step further and develop a mobile device to do real-time PCR plus diagnosis of malaria. When you add a DNA binding dye to the multipled DNA mixture and shine light of a specific wavelength on it, the mixture will emit light when the malaria parasite is present.
In fact, the technology can detect any kind of pathogen, not just malaria, depending on the selection of a chemical component called a primer used in the device. A commercial real-time PCR setup can cost up to $30,000. Amplino made one for $60.
Malaria is a massive problem in the developing world. WHO estimates that up to 1 million people die each year from the disease, the majority of which are children in sub-Saharan Africa. The main methods of testing in the developing world are rapid diagnostic blood tests which look like a pregnancy test and can be easily used in the field, and microscopy of a blood smear. The main measure of accuracy of a malaria test is its sensitivity, in other words what percentage of infected people are correctly identified. Other factors in assessing a testing system include the number of false positives, storage life, whether refrigeration is required, etc.
Rapid diagnostic tests are less sensitive than lab tests and cannot identify different types of malaria. Microscopy is more accurate but requires the samples to be sent to a laboratory where trained health professionals review the blood samples. Incorrect diagnosis means that the limited supply of malaria drugs is not allocated optimally. Over-prescription can also lead to drug resistance. However, testing at the point of care can still result in higher levels of correct patient treatment than more accurate, but slower, lab testing.
Amplino’s test is more sensitive than rapid diagnostic tests but can be used by non-medical staff for immediate diagnosis in the field. It can also detect malaria in pregnant women. During pregnancy a woman’s immune system is suppressed, making her twice as likely to die from malaria. The parasites which cause the disease can hide in the placenta, making them much harder to detect.
Amplino estimates that the final mobile testing device will cost about $250, while the cartridge required per test costs between 50 cents and $1. Getting the device to market is still a long road. While the core PCR technology being used is not new, all medical devices need to be certified. This process, plus getting the prototype ready for manufacturing, could cost up to 1.5 million EUR over the next few years.
There are not many competing devices. InstantLabs makes a portable, real-time PCR system but the company seems to focus mainly on the food safety industry. Lava Amp makes a $300 machine to run PCR, but not to diagnose a particular disease.
“Our ultimate goal would be to get money from the Gates foundation,” said Bruins. ”We need strategic, not purely financial investors.” The Vodafone prize will allow the team to produce a version of the prototype which can be manufactured on a large scale (they estimate this will take 6 months) and test it in the field in Burkina Faso.
Amplino is not seeking to patent the technology. “I actually have two patents pending (for other technologies), ” Bruins explained. “But is a patent really fit for our mission? Maybe we need to ditch the whole patent approach.”
Amplino was founded in 2012, is based in Leiden in the Netherlands, has 3 employees and is privately funded.
Filed under: mobile
This article originally appeared on VentureBeat
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