Brian GittaRapid malaria testing with no blood
About 220 million people worldwide will suffer the scourge of malaria this year and nearly half a million – mostly children – will die from it. But if Ugandan IT specialist Brian Gitta succeeds in delivering his potent new technology, those numbers will fall.
The key to successfully treating malaria is fast diagnosis. Current tests require a blood sample, a microscope and a highly trained analyst – all of which are not always available in the developing world – but Gitta and his team have developed a portable electronic device that gives a reliable reading in less than two minutes, without drawing blood. This new test offers a significant advantage in speed and convenience, given that the microscopy test takes 30 minutes or longer, and blood samples may need to be sent to a laboratory in a distant town.
Gitta and his colleagues have a strong personal stake in the outcome: every person in his thinkIT team has suffered from the debilitating mosquito-borne blood disease. “Coming from the sub-Saharan region, we’ve had many episodes of malaria. I can’t actually count how many times I’ve suffered from malaria since I was a kid,” he says.
According to the World Health Organization, 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia carry almost 80 per cent of the global malaria burden. Five countries account for nearly half of all malaria cases: Nigeria (25 per cent), Democratic Republic of the Congo (11 per cent), Mozambique (5 per cent), India (4 per cent) and Uganda (4 per cent). Worldwide, 61 per cent of malaria fatalities are among children.
Gitta’s love of information technology developed from playing computer games as a boy. Several years ago, suffering a recurrent bout of malaria, the thought struck him that he could turn his IT skills to solving this life-and-death problem.
After creating five generations of prototypes, he has developed a novel device, the “Matiscope”, into which a patient inserts a clean finger to have their malaria status read. This portable device uses light and magnets to detect the presence of the malaria parasite. While the parasite lives in the human bloodstream, it sheds crystals of a substance called hemozoin. The crystals are magnetic, as they have an iron atom at their core. The Matiscope uses magnets to detect whether these crystals are present in the patient’s blood. At the same time, a light beam shone on the finger measures changes in colour, shape or concentration of red blood cells that are the physical signs of malaria. The results are combined using artificial intelligence to yield a rapid diagnosis, in particular for the early stages of the disease, which can be hard to detect. This can be shared instantly with government health authorities, medical scientists and drug companies to improve knowledge and control of the disease.
The present version of Gitta’s Matiscope can achieve 80 per cent diagnostic accuracy – but this needs to improve to 90 per cent or better to be most effective in the field. Concurrently, he has to persuade a medical profession – and patients – long accustomed to taking blood samples that his non-invasive technology can do an equally reliable job, more cheaply and in a fraction of the time.
The Matiscope is currently in phase 2 clinical trials with more than 300 patients to determine its reliability against the best existing diagnostics. Gitta and his team have so far covered over 50 patients in the study and are testing more subjects. If it succeeds, it will be tested on more than 1,000 people, and then on several thousand people to establish safety and effectiveness. After this, Gitta plans to deliver the Matiscope to hospitals throughout Uganda, and then into neighbouring countries such as Kenya. In 2019, they started piloting yotta, a platform aimed at providing real-time malaria surveillance. They enrolled 10 hospitals and captured data points on the malaria diagnostics, medication and test results in several locations covered for the last six months.
“Malaria is a curable disease, if you know you have it. Rapid diagnosis empowers the patient to take quick action that may save their life and other lives. There is happiness in being able to create change in the fight against malaria. It is a humbling situation – but also fun.”
malaria cases worldwide in 2018