John Lewandowski with the RAM (Rapid Assessment of Malaria) device.
Although it is preventable and curable, the World Health Organization estimates that 438,000 people died from malaria in 2015, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
John Lewandowski, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at MIT, said diagnosing it quickly is critical.
“Early detection is very important, typically in the first five to seven days before symptoms arise, so that treatment can begin,” said Lewandowski, 26.
He’s designed a mechanical device called RAM (Rapid Assessment of Malaria) that is able to detect malaria in five seconds from a drop of blood.
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There are two primary ways to diagnose malaria: You can test a drop of blood under a microscope to identify the parasite, or you can do a diagnostic test on a blood drop sample, which returns a positive or negative result, similar to a home pregnancy test..
But many rural communities in Africa and Asia don’t have the medical infrastructure for microscopic tests, and the diagnostic test can’t detect malaria infection in the very early stages.
The RAM device.
Lewandowski developed his device to make diagnosing malaria quicker and cheaper.
The RAM is battery-operated, costs about $100 to $120 and is made from low-cost materials. The plastic box (measuring 4×4 inches) has a small circuit board, a few magnets and a laser on the inside. On the outside is an LCD screen, an SD card slot and a plastic disposable cuvette.
“It’s pretty bare bones,” said Lewandowski, who’s the founder and CEO of Boston-based Disease Diagnostic Group, which is developing the device.
Malaria parasites in human blood create iron crystals that are magnetic in nature.
“As an engineer, I thought about creating a way to detect these magnetic crystals quickly,” said Lewandowski.
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You take a finger prick of blood and insert it into the box through the cuvette. If the malaria parasite is present, the magnets draw the iron crystals horizontally, vertically or diagonally. The laser helps identify the pattern and diagnose the disease. (If the disease isn’t present, no crystals form.)
The technology is deliberately simplistic and easy to use, although diagnosing the parasite and determining treatment needs to be done by a local clinic or hospital.
“The technology is novel,” said David Sullivan, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on “hemozoin,” or the iron crystals. Sullivan, who is familiar with the device, said it offers a slight advantage over the rapid diagnostic tests because of its speed; some malaria patients can die within 24 hours.
John Lewandowski [far right] with Alfonse Harris and his brother Mark Lewandowski.
Rapid blood testing devices have been in the spotlight recently. Most prominently, Theranos, which claimed its blood testing device could process a full range of lab tests with just few drops of blood. The firm was valued at $9 billion, but in October 2015, a WSJ report questioned the accuracy of Theranos’ blood tests and it has been under fire since then.
But Lewandowski said his device isn’t reinventing the wheel.
“Our technology is just speeding up that same process and bringing down the cost,” he said.
At the same time, he said is…