The Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) at Massachusetts General Hospital recently announced the winner of its latest Innovation Award – the Whitesides Research Group. CAMTech launched three years ago with the goal of accelerating medical technology innovation in low and middle-income countries to improve health outcomes. The small team commonly works with early stage medtech innovators to help them identify health problems, develop new technologies and move through the continuum of product development all the way to commercialization.
This month, CAMTech awarded the Whitesides Research Group with $100,000 to develop a point-of-care diagnostic for Sickle Cell Disease. Harvard University chemistry professor George Whitesides leads the team.
“The group has a strong commitment to coming up with low-cost, simple-to-use solutions in resource-constrained settings,” says Elizabeth Bailey, CAMTech Director. “The project addresses the unmet need of being able to properly diagnose Sickle Cell Disease in places with little infrastructure and resources.”
Sickle Cell Disease is a genetic disease that affects over 300,000 newborns a year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and India. There are a number of complications associated with the disease that can lead to mortality in young children. According to several members of the research group, Whitesides chose Sickle Cell Disease because big change can come from simple interventions during the first five years of life.
Traditionally, physicians diagnose Sickle Cell Disease by taking blood and scanning for the hemoglobin protein, which is distorted when the disease is present. Generally, the equipment and laboratories necessary to diagnose the disease are not available in places where there is a high incidence of the disease.
This is where the Whitesides Research Group hopes to change things by designing a test which could use the property of a cell specific to Sickle Cell Disease to identify the disease in a rapid way with minimal equipment. Specifically, cells that are affected by the disease are dehydrated and become much more dense. So the team has created a test with a liquid that allows only dense sickle cells to sink to the bottom.
“With this funding, we can figure out where we can improve the test,” says A.J. Kumar, a postdoctoral fellow and Whitesides Research Group member who is leading the project. “We want to create a test that is manufacturable, stable for storage and meets the rigorous requirements to work in the field.”
The Bacca Foundation and the Omidyar Network fund the award annually. To find its winners, CAMTech begins the search by calling for proposals from around the world. An external committee of experts from business, design, clinicians and funding agencies reviews proposals. Specifically, the committee looks for technologies that have the potential for widespread public health impact and proposals that have the potential for commercial viability in low and middle-income countries.
“The innovation award at CAMTech helps innovators move forward in whatever capacity they need,” says Alexis Steel, Program Manager at CAMTech. “We provide funding, mentorship within our network, which includes business experts, clinicians, and design and engineering experts.”
“One of the things that set this proposal apart was the commitment to working with in-country partners,” says Bailey. “This process has been a great example of how co-creation can work and that was an exceptional part of the history of this project and why we are optimistic it will succeed.”
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