May. 05, 2011

BGU researcher Dr. Alberto Bilenca of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and a member of the Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology has been awarded a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of 88 grants awarded to explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve global health. The grants of US$100,000 each have been made to researchers from 25 countries. This marks the sixth round of funding from Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE), an initiative to help lower the barriers for testing innovative ideas in global health. Projects selected for funding focused on polio eradication and vaccines, cell-phone applications for global health, new approaches to cure HIV, sanitation technologies, and new ideas to improve the health of mothers and newborns. 

Bilenca’s project uses the principles of optical polarization/speckle and cellphone technology to create a low-cost, portable probe to quickly and accurately diagnose malaria in field settings. Winners were selected from more than 2,500 proposals and approximately 100 countries. “GCE winners are expanding the pipeline of ideas to address serious global health and development challenges where creative thinking is most urgently needed.  This effort is critical if we are to spur on new discoveries that ultimately could save millions more lives,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Malaria causes approximately 1 million deaths per year throughout developing countries (~85 percent of which are children of 0-5 years old). “To date, there are no means of diagnosing malaria and monitoring disease severity noninvasively by a low-cost, compact and easy-to-use device in field settings,” says Bilenca. To address this challenge, Bilenca, in collaboration with Linnie Golightly, MD, from the Weill Cornell Medical College, will be developing a noninvasive diagnostic probe which creates images that depict the malaria pigment (hemozoin crystals) in blood following malaria parasite infection, as well as micro-obstructions in the circulatory system that result from the infection. 

“Our diagnostic probe is portable, simple for use and inexpensive to produce,” notes Bilenca. The prototype probe is based on a standard camera cellphone and a red laser pointer and has already obtained noninvasively finger blood perfusion images in vivo with excellent resolution and contrast within less than a second. In contrast to commercially available malaria tests, this probe will avoid the need for blood collection, therefore maximizing medical safety, patient comfort and test rapidity. 

“This probe helps meet the need for diagnostic technologies capable of noninvasive, reliable and rapid diagnosis of malaria in resource-limited areas,” continues Bilenca. “If successful, this technology will provide a simple and robust test of malaria in field settings that will not only aid in the triage of patients to hospitals, but also be of tremendous value in monitoring these patients in the intensive care settings, significantly assisting medical personnel in prompting aggressive management of patients with severe malaria.”