This low-cost, reusable noninvasive light test could serve as a prototype for detecting other biomarkers and diseases in rural and outlying medical laboratories

A 24-year-old Ugandan computer scientist whose own malaria was missed by traditional clinical laboratory blood tests has developed a device that detects signs of the disease using a beam of light directed onto a patient’s finger. The light highlights and detects changes in the color, shape, and concentration of red bloods cells affected by disease.

Brian Gitta, CEO and co-founder of computer software company thinkIT Limited, became the youngest winner of the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. His eHealth solution is called Matibabu, which means “treatment” in Swahili.

Gitta and his team are developing a low-cost, reusable device that clips onto a patient’s finger and provides malaria test results within 60 seconds through a mobile phone app, UPI.com reported. The latest Matibabu prototype uses a ‘hybrid of magnetic-optic technology and electro-impedance technology’ to detect the disease,” according to a blog post on the thinkIT website.

“Our next step is to determine the validity and reliability of the Matibabu device compared with the gold standard microscopy and RDT by conducting field tests with malaria patients in selected health facilities in order to obtain information that will be used to improve the device, and eventually roll it out to the market,” the blog post states.

The Matibabu malaria detection device (above) uses the principles of light scattering and magnetism to detect changes to red blood cells that signal disease. The low-cost, reusable device from thinkIT Limited has advanced through several prototypes and now has an estimated 80% accuracy rate. (Photo copyright: Makerere University College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology.)

TechCrunch reported that the current generation of Matibabu is about 80% accurate, with the expectation that further development will increase the device’s accuracy to 90-95%.

While this new diagnostic technology needs further development and clinical studies, it could potentially be used for other biomarkers and diseases besides malaria. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) like this are not yet widely used, so speed-of-diagnosis also is an issue.

Nevertheless, if successful, such a non-invasive test for malaria would be a major breakthrough since, today, the mosquito-borne disease must be confirmed by medical laboratory blood tests using either microscopic diagnosis or antigen detection, which are costly and time consuming.

“It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development—in this case by improving healthcare,” Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize judge, noted in a Royal Academy of Engineering statement. “Matibabu is simply a gamechanger.”

Africa Prize judge Rebecca Enonchong (left) presents Ugandan Brian Gitta (right) of Matibabu with the Africa Prize winner’s medal. (Photo/caption copyright: Royal Academy of Engineering.)

Shafik Sekitto, Matibabu Vice President of Business Development, told BBC World News that Gitta’s own battle with malaria was prolonged because the first three blood tests failed to diagnose his disease. “[Gitta] brought up the idea: ‘Why can’t we find a new way of using the skills we have in computer science—of diagnosing a disease without having to prick somebody?’” Sekitto explained.

Malaria Threatens Half the World’s Population

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly half the world’s population is at risk of malaria. According to WHO estimates, in 2015 there were 429,000 deaths worldwide from malaria, with 90% of cases and 92% of deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Africa Prize, which includes a $33,400 (124-million Uganda shillings) award, is Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation. Its sponsors aim to encourage engineers from sub-Saharan Africa “to apply their skills to develop scalable solutions to local challenges.” In addition to funding, award recipients also receive business training, mentoring, and access to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s network of high profile and experienced engineers and experts, and their networks.

Gitta expects the award of the Africa Prize will help thinkIT Limited better navigate the difficult process of gaining worldwide regulatory approval for a new diagnostic device.

“It’s such a big achievement for us, because it means that we can better manage production in order to scale clinical trials and prove ourselves to regulators,” he predicted in the Royal Academy of Engineering statement. “The recognition will help us open up partnership opportunities—which is what we need most at the moment.”

Many pathologists and clinical laboratory managers are watching the efforts of various companies to develop medical laboratory tests that can be performed with a device that is coupled to a smartphone and can be performed as a point-of-care test. A substantial proportion of these research efforts are targeting the needs for accurate diagnostic testing in developing countries. That’s because of the need for cheap, fast, and accurate assays that can be performed in the rural areas of these nations.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Ugandan Inventor Wins Africa Prize for Bloodless Malaria Test

Ugandan Innovation Wins the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation

Ugandan Wins Africa Prize for Bloodless Malaria Test

Matibabu Uses Light to Diagnose Malaria

Matibabu Wins the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation