Israeli startup SightDx is developing a portable malaria detector
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Photo Credit: SightDX

Photo Credit: SightDX

To do so, it will partner with the US military in Kenya

While countries like Sri Lanka have become malaria-free in recent years, malaria remains a potent global disease. Transmitted by mosquitoes, it kills nearly half a million people annually, primarily in tropical regions.

Treatment programs are still ongoing worldwide, including in India, Sri Lanka’s northern neighborhood, which is still affected by the disease. The WHO outlined in its new Global Technical Strategy for Malaria that, “Strengthening malaria surveillance is fundamental to program planning and implementation and is a crucial factor for accelerating progress” with the goal of eradicating epidemic outbreaks by 2030.

This is where the Israeli company Sight Diagnostics, or SightDx, comes in. On the heels of its existing Parasight devices in African, European, and Asian hospitals that use advanced computer vison technology to detect malaria-bearing parasites in blood, SightDx is now partnering with the US Army Medical Research Directorate Kenya (USAMRD-K). There, they will “develop and test the next generation of the SightDx malaria diagnostic technology … a portable malaria and complete blood count (CBC) reader” that will be field tested in Kenya.

Portability is key

Portability remains a major issue for malaria research and treatment, since as Business Insider notes, eradication will be difficult in certain rural areas, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, due to their remoteness or lack of medical infrastructure. But keeping up the pressure against the disease and its vectors is especially vital because more and more mosquitos, as well as the parasites they carry that transmit the disease to people, are becoming drug-resistant.

In Kenya, the US Army runs a research station focused on detecting and treating infectious diseases in East Africa. As company CEO Yossi Pollak noted, “Their extensive background in malaria clinical research and expertise in malaria diagnostics” makes them “an ideal partner.” Expanding the reach of this initiative is key to Kenya’s own eradication campaign, and wider global efforts. Diagnostics test rates have doubled in Africa since 2005, with more suspected cases receiving rapid diagnostic testing now than ever before.

“If proven successful,” according to the mission’s senior scientist, Dr. John Waitumbi, “the instrument from SightDx will help detect and quantify malaria parasites.  It will also provide the patient’s blood count, an important parameter in the management of patients diagnosed with malaria.”

Parasight. Photo Credit: SightDx

Parasight. Photo Credit: SightDx

Greater accuracy

The portable model will be ready by June 2017, holding a single five-test cartridge compared to SightDx’s larger device that holds thirty tests, but is less mobile. The most challenging aspect of the new design has been packing improved functions into it while keeping it small enough for easy portable use. SightDx told Geektime that they will expand their detection capabilities to encompass complete blood count (CBC), including white blood cell analysis: “This can be expanded to identifying blood parameters specific to cancer patients as well as infectious diseases like chagas and babesia.”

This is an important next step, since babesiosis, spread by ticks, is often misdiagnosed as malaria and Chagas disease impacts 6-8 million people worldwide and is spreading more rapidly around the world. As Geektime previously heard from CEO Yossi Pollak in March, misdiagnosis and overprescribing anti-malarial drugs to non-sufferers may result in wider resistance to those drugs, which would make treating actual cases more expensive and difficult.

(With this in mind, microscopy technicians in the Amazon looking for malaria are also being taught to detect Chagas-carrying parasites in blood samples, both to predict outbreaks and also avoid improper diagnoses.)

Pricing for the device will depend on where exactly they are being sold, the company says, but will not be different from existing RDT device prices in such locales. This market has expanded greatly in a decade, with the WHO reporting RDT sales in 2008 at 50 million, and then rising to 314 million by 2014.

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