Malaria, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia targeted

Three Case Western Reserve University faculty members have received grants to advance technologies designed to provide earlier diagnoses of malaria, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia.

Brian T. Grimberg, assistant professor of international health; Miklos Gratzl, associate professor of biomedical engineering; and Umut Gurkan, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering each have received funding for devices and technology that have shown significant early potential to benefit people who may have these diseases.

The awards are part of a federal initiative to help speed promising innovations from the laboratory and out to patients. A consortium of five Ohio universities and hospitals is one of three in the country that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have designated and funded as NIH Centers for Accelerated Innovations (NCAI). Case Western Reserve and Cleveland Clinic are the two Northeast Ohio institutions within the consortium.

The researchers received the following funding, with the each grant matched by a university-related organization:

  • Gratzl: $25,000
  • Gurkan: $75,000
  • Grimberg: $75,000

The centers focus specifically on heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders and diseases.

Developing a field-ready malaria test

Grimberg and his team aim to improve the sensitivity and portability of a malaria diagnostic device that allows high-sensitivity magneto-optical detection of malaria pigment (hemozoin crystals) in the blood. The approach avoids the time- and equipment intensive approach of staining and microscope-based examination of patient blood.

The original version of the device developed in the laboratory is highly accurate but large and not easily portable. Even more problematic in the developing countries it requires a computer to read and interpret information about a patient’s blood sample.

Grimberg’s award will provide funds to allow him to create a more rugged, field-ready device. Once the new prototype is complete, the team will test it test the prototype on human samples in Peru as part of the World Health Organization’s device approval process.

“More than 3 billion people live with the threat of malaria throughout the world,” Grimberg said. “While improvements in terms of morbidity, mortality, and transmission have been achieved in the past five years, malaria parasites continue to evade elimination. Current malaria diagnosis methods are slow, expensive, and sometimes inaccurate. Our portable device will cost 51 cents per diagnosis compared to $3.18 for microscopy when including all costs and labor and allow for onsite detection of malaria.”

Diagnosing malaria earlier

Gratzl and his team will develop and clinically test a device for diagnosing cystic fibrosis in newborns at two weeks of age. Today’s tests can only begin at the age of three months or later—after some irreversible damage has already taken place.

“Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that leads to the secretion of abnormally thick mucus,” said Gratzl. “This causes obstructions in the airways and recurring pneumonia. If treatment begins after the presentation of symptoms, which typically occurs about three months of age or later, irreversible damage has already occurred. Our diagnostic technology will make it possible to begin treatment shortly after birth.”

Currently, the most widely used test for cystic fibrosis measures chloride in sweat at the age of three months or later. The reason for the delay is that the volume of sweat required is larger than what can be obtained from a newborn. The Gratzl team’s technology requires only two microliters of sweat, which can be obtained from two-week-old babies.

Testing a more efficient sickle cell detection device

Gurkan and his team will test new technology in Ghana that they developed to diagnose sickle cell disease on site. HemeChip is a mobile device capable of detecting several genetic blood disorders, including sickle cell disease. The device will enable a $2-per-screening test that takes 10 minutes to run, making it less expensive and time-consuming than existing methods.

“Although sickle cell newborn screening is standard in this country, very few infants are tested in Africa because of the expense and lack of trained personnel to carry out conventional tests,” said Gurkan. “This new mobile technology is an easy to use, cost-effective tool with worldwide applicability, potentially saving many lives.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 70 percent of deaths attributable to sickle cell disease in Africa could be prevented with early detection and medical intervention. Over six million people alone in West and Central Africa have the disease.