Imagine a diagnostician being able to view, in real time, the blood sample of a patient located in another part of the country, or for that matter another part of the world using technology costing less than $500.
Tasks such as these are now possible thanks to “collaborative diagnostics”, a discipline that seeks to connect people via technology, enabling the detection of specific pathogens in patients who may be remotely located.
Malaria TV is a newly developed system that exemplifies this concept. Designed by three researchers at the University of Toronto’s Laboratory for Collaborative Diagnostics (LCD), this system can be cobbled together from a bunch of everyday tech tools.
Its purpose: to identify malaria parasites in digital images of live blood smears.
“[Malaria TV] takes physical location out of the equation and allows everyone access to a parasitologist at little expense by using the stuff we have sitting on the benches anyway,” explains Ian Crandall, director of parasitology at the University of Toronto’s LCD, and one of the country’s malaria experts.
Besides offering a system capable of diagnosing a disease that can kill in 72 hours, Malaria TV also addresses the diagnostician shortage problem, says Crandall.
For the past three years, Crandall has worked with LCD academic director Peter Pennefather and executive director West Suhanic on the project.
The aim, says Suhanic, was to develop a system that could be easily replicated and at minimal cost.
The challenge was to build equipment that lives up to its billing, he says. “Anyone can build another $100,000 solution.”
He said Malaria TV is an example of “commodity engineering”, in that specific components used to create the system are accessible pretty much anywhere: a generic PC, some form of network connectivity, a microscope and a digital camera.
With that, microbiologists around the world can look at live blood smears and identify malaria parasites, he says. “And you need a live blood smear because that may be the only thing standing between someone living or dying.”
When attempting to rule out malaria, traditional diagnostic methods can prove costly, says Suhanic.
He recalls six people in New Brunswick who exhibited malaria symptoms following a trip to The Dominican Republic. “It probably cost tax payers $1 million to rule out malaria as the cause. If they’d had our platform, Ian could have ruled it out in a four-minute conversation.”
But Malaria TV is by no means restricted to malaria diagnosis, says Suhanic. Rather, it’s a focused demonstration of how commodity technology can easily work in the detection of a range of pathogens.
In fact, the LCD has begun looking into how this technology can diagnose HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Another potential application is the identification of medication that’s either counterfeit or contains an inadequate amount of active medicinal ingredients, he says.
Malaria TV has proven replicable and ready for deployment, however, funding is the last remaining roadblock, says Suhanic. “For us, a win is getting somebody to take up our technology. It’s all open-source that’s built on dirt cheap stuff.”
Until then, the money will dribble in from the pockets of Suhanic, Crandall and Pennefather.
Although response to Malaria TV has been positive, applications for much-needed funding haven’t been so successful, according to Crandall.
The problem, he says, is that laboratory managers prefer to see technology that has been approved and implemented elsewhere first. “The attitude of many people is: ‘let others work it out first and we’d be quite happy to adopt it’,” he says.
Malaria TV provides a low barrier of entry, minimal cost, and better service, whereby addressing the pain points that generally plague laboratory managers, says Crandall.
According to a Canadian analyst, while collaboration tools have traditionally been used in the corporate world, as a means to consolidating enterprise data and business processes, that’s now changing.
There is a growing awareness and interest in these types of tools among verticals such as healthcare, says George Goodall, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Inc.