UofG projects win funding to bring origami diagnostics to low-income countries

Published: 11 December 2018

University of Glasgow engineers have secured funding to develop new medical diagnostic technologies to help treat infectious diseases in Africa and Vietnam.

University of Glasgow engineers have secured funding to develop new medical diagnostic technologies to help treat infectious diseases in Africa and Vietnam.Origami diagnostics

The Royal Academy of Engineering will provide £53,000in support as part of their Frontiers of Engineering for Development programme, which aims to initiate collaborations between early career researchers around the world to tackle challenges faced by low and middle income countries.

The first project will develop a new platform for the rapid diagnosis of the blood-borne condition sepsis, to be used in low-resource areas of Vietnam, where access to infrastructure, equipment and technical expertise is challenging.

Sepsis is an acute condition arising from an infection which causes the body to damage its own organs and tissues and is often fatal. Around 300,000 patients are affected by sepsis each year in Vietnam, leading to 50,000 deaths annually.

Rapid treatment is essential, as patients’ risk of death rises eight percent with every passing hour of infection, but the best diagnostic technique currently available can take hours or days to return a result. As a result, doctors often treat patients with antimicrobial medication without clear information on the pathogen, which can build resistance to effective medication.

The University of Glasgow’s team, led by Dr Julien Reboud, Dr Melanie Jimenez and Dr Zhugen Yang, will work closely with Dr. Trung Ngo Nat from the 108 Military Hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, to demonstrate the effectiveness of low-cost, easy-to-use paper ‘origami’ platform which can process large volumes of blood to detect sepsis.

The origami platform, developed together with the University of Glasgow’s Professor Jon Cooper, uses a commercially-available printer to coat the paper in patterns made from water-resistant wax. When the paper is folded – like in origami - the sample fluid is directed into channels in the pattern. The folded-paper device enables the DNA of the pathogens to be detected, thus providing the ability to diagnose infections. 

The same paper origami platform will be used in the second project, which aims to  develop new health information management system solutions in Uganda. Data from origami diagnosis tests performed in the field will be fed into the national online system for highly prevalent diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis.

Malaria is the leading cause of death for children under five years of age in sub-Saharan Africa, while schistosomiasis infects 100 million people. The combined effect of these diseases is to help perpetuate a cycle of poverty, illness and mortality, with significant economic impact.

That impact has been mitigated to some extent by strategies to decrease infection rates, such as insecticide-impregnated nets, together with available medical treatment, but the reduction in infections has stalled in recent years.

The University of Glasgow team will work with researchers from Ona, a social enterprise whose mission is to ensure equitable access to services for those who need them most, together with researchers from Makerere University in Uganda.

Ona Co-Founder, Peter Lubell-Doughtie said: “We’re excited to work together on this project. Collaborations between biomedical and computer scientists are essential to accelerate the adoption of life saving innovations like the origami platform.”

Together, the researchers will develop a web-based surveillance platform, using the new low-cost, easy-to-use and connected paper origami molecular diagnostic device to rapidly identify infections in rural communities, enabling faster treatment and adaptation of local interventions.

The School of Engineering’s Dr Julien Reboud will lead both projects. Dr Reboud said: “We’re extremely pleased to have won this support from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“This is a unique opportunity to build strong links with companies and early career research leaders throughout the world, truly focussed on solving hard challenges in low and middle income countries. Such consortia are hard to set up and we are thankful for the RAE support, which will allow us to trial new technologies and solutions on complex healthcare challenges in Africa and Vietnam”.  

The Frontiers of Engineering for Development programme is part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a UK Government funding stream which supports cutting-edge research on global issues affecting developing countries.

From 2016 to 2021, the GCRF will invest £1.5 billion in funding with the aim to mobilise the UK’s world-leading research base to address key challenges facing developing countries.

First published: 11 December 2018