Western professor Ian Cunningham is working to help people in Uganda have better access to life-saving testing and early diagnosis of malaria.
Cunningham, a Schulich Medicine & Dentistry professor and scientist at Robarts Research Institute, is the research mentor on a project to develop a low-cost digital light microscope for remote diagnosis of malaria in poor populations. With funding from Academics Without Borders (AWB), Cunningham works closely with William Wasswa, project lead and a professor at Mbarara University of Science & Technology in Uganda.
“Treatments for malaria are only effective if you can diagnose quickly in rural environments so they can be started on a treatment regime quickly,” said Cunningham. “The current system of sending a sample to labs in big cities for diagnosis is a barrier to that. My colleague proposed developing a low-cost microscope that can be brought to these locations.”
The project aims to build such microscope for under $500. Currently, the cost of a microscope lens alone is around $2,000, Cunningham said. “This would be a game-changing difference and can have a very high impact.”
Cunningham and Wasswa’s project proposal was successfully selected for funding through the AWB’s Strengthening Engineering Education and Research (SEER) program.
“The goal of the SEER program is for mentors from primarily Canadian institutions to work with faculty in Uganda, who haven’t completed their PhDs or who don’t have research backgrounds. We’re called supervisors, but we’re really collaborators,” said Cunningham, adding the idea for their project was proposed by Wasswa as a way to address malaria, a leading cause of death among young people in Uganda.
Their project builds on previous work done in this area in recent years. In addition to being smaller and less expensive, to be effective in many rural areas, microscopes must also be battery operated, able to withstand impact caused by bouncing around on hard roads, and easy to use.
“We have to build the prototype, evaluate it, then do rural testing. Within the year, we will also have an external research proposal written and submitted,” Cunningham said. “The end goal, ultimately, is that the slides will be digitally imaged locally and sent back to the lab digitally, but our first objective is to make sure pathologists are getting the right images to diagnose.”
Cunningham said he is looking forward to continuing this research and the potential for the group to make this scientific contribution.
“We’re really invested in this project succeeding. I got involved in the program because I’ve been distressed for a few years now about the politics in this world. Public education in some countries is fabulous and some countries have fabulous private education, but you see the frailty of democracy in so many places. We need to have smart people who like to talk to keep a democracy moving. I’m a scientist and can work with local educators. Science education is where I can help.”