Disease Diagnostic Group

Stage 2 E-Team Grantees

Recipient Institution: 
Case Western Reserve University
Principal Investigator: 
Brian Grimberg
Grant Amount: 

A handheld malaria diagnosis device that provides a diagnosis in one minute with one drop of blood from a fingertip.

See the video here:

The team:
Disease Diagnostic Group – Awarded $20,000

The team members:

  • John Lewandowski, CEO/Founder, graduate student in Engineering and Management

Principal investigator:
Dr. Brian Grimberg, CMO/President, professor in the Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease

Case Western Reserve University

The innovation:
A handheld malaria diagnosis device that provides accurate results in one minute with one drop of blood from a fingertip.

The problem:
Malaria has had, and continues to have, a large impact on the developing world.
There were a 250 million documented cases in 2010 (with the actual number of cases likely much higher) that led to one million deaths, 90 percent of which were children. According to the World Health Organization, in particularly hard-hit countries, malaria is responsible for 30 to 50 percent of hospital admissions, up to 50 percent of outpatient visits, and up to 40 percent of public health spending.

Part of the problem is diagnosing the disease. Malaria is usually confirmed by the microscopic examination of a blood sample or by a rapid diagnostic test (RDT), a dipstick embedded with reagents that changes color when exposed to a drop of blood. Each approach has its drawbacks: many settings are not equipped to perform microscopic testing, and even when they are, accuracy is a problem as 50 percent of cases are misdiagnosed. RDTs are more accurate but expensive, and can be damaged by tropical conditions; they also vary widely in sensitivity and specificity and are unable to detect low levels of malaria parasites.

Without being able to detect low levels of parasites, half of all infections worldwide go undiagnosed. People with low-grade infections unwittingly bring the disease back into their village. As a result, the disease keeps circulating in the community and malaria persists despite being treatable and curable.

The solution:
Disease Diagnostic Group (DDG) is developing the Rapid Assessment of Malaria device, or RAM, a handheld tool that can detect early-stage infections. RAM is a 3x5 inch beige cube that contains inexpensive magnets, optical wiring and digital circuitry. It works by taking advantage of the unique chemical composition of malaria parasites, which contain iron as a result of eating red blood cells. RAM dilutes a drop of blood with water, shines a focused laser light through the sample and the iron, lined up by the magnets, blocks some of the beam. How much the beam is blocked depends on the amount of iron, which in turn predicts how many parasites are present.

Lab tests run by the team determined its device was right 97 percent of the time, while RDTs are about 85 percent accurate, and microscopes 50 percent.

RAM’s high level of accuracy could have big implications. DDG Founder John Lewandowski, a CWRU graduate student with a keen interest in fighting malaria, said, “We expect that our device would be far superior to existing technologies in an ‘elimination setting’—meaning the complete eradication of malaria from a certain area.”

The future:
DDG is currently in the process of finalizing its RAM prototype, with the goal of deploying 25 of them for field tests in Fall 2013. CWRU malarial researcher and inventor of the technology Brian Grimberg said, “Actually going out into the field is the next big stepping stone for us. What funders such as the World Health Organization really want to see is how our device does in the field compared to the other methods. “

DDG is aggressively pursuing fundraising, looking for $300,000 in non-equity grants or private investment in order to scale up operations and enter the market.

Tips for student innovators:
Lewandowski: “Make sure you balance the social impact of your technology with financial sustainability. You have to look at both the technology and the business model. A lot of people focus on one or the other, and end up with a huge problem.”

Grimberg: “Seek help! There are a lot of opportunities for getting help from people around your campus and in your community. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Things only happen when you interact with people and start to learn from them.”