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U of T Engineering researchers develop low-cost, portable technology to detect measles and rubella infection status and immunity, for use in developing nations (Photo: Wheeler Lab and Grand Challenges Canada)

U of T Engineering researchers have developed a paper-based diagnostic system for use in some of the world’s poorest countries. Awarded $112,000 by Grand Challenges Canada’s “Bold Ideas” initiative last month, the system is being touted for its potential impact on infant and maternal health in developing nations.

“Every hour, 11 infants are born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) and 18 children die of measles,” said researcher Alphonsus Ng (IBBME MASc 0T9, PhD Candidate), one of the lead designers of the technology.

Professor Aaron Wheeler (IBBME) and his team of researchers, including Ng, are developing a low-cost, portable system to detect measles and rubella infection status and immunity.

Using a small machine called the DropBot, health practitioners can run four concurrent tests on one droplet of blood. They insert a thin strip of paper, approximately one inch wide by three inches long, into a testing platform. Printed for less than a dollar by a standard ink jet printer, the paper has an innovative circuit-like design that actually generates light once the machine digitally manipulates the blood sample. The whole process takes 35 minutes.

In some of the world’s poorest nations, those 35 minutes could have life-changing impact.

Rubella—sometimes referred to as “German measles”—can be passed by pregnant mothers to their unborn children with devastating effects that can include severe developmental problems, blindness and stillborn births. The WHO estimates that approximately 110,000 children are born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) every year—but that statistic does not account for the number of women who miscarry or experience other pregnancy-ending complications from the disease.

“Vaccinating children is great,” explained Ng. “But the entire population still needs to be monitored, because there will still be vulnerable segments of the population, and that can lead to serious health risks.”

In the next 18 months, the team plans to test their technology on 200 patient samples in Vietnam.

“Vietnam is a hotspot for measles and rubella because they don’t have a common rubella vaccination yet,“ said Ng.

It’s also a country in dire need of diagnostic resources: Vietnam has only two diagnostic labs, one in the south and one in the north. Introducing a rapid, economical field diagnostic tool could have an enormous impact on this country of 97 million and lead to better-informed public health policies.

Testing the technology in the field will also allow the team to work on fine-tuning the technology specifically for the poorest nations.

“It costs us maybe a dollar to print the [paper] test chips, but printing these in an industrial setting would cut costs by another order of magnitude,” explained Ryan Fobel (IBBME PhD Candidate), one of the innovators behind the DropBot.

The team is also looking at ways to cut the cost of manufacturing the DropBot machine to a few hundred dollars, which would put the technology into far more hands, and potentially allow everything to be manufactured within the host country, generating local jobs.

“This is a great opportunity to bring digital microfluidics out into the field to address a real world problem,” said Wheeler. “I am proud to be working with such a motivated, enthusiastic team.”





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