30,000 Clinical Pathology Labs For A Dollar

No British press coverage for a major innovation story: biotech legend Una Ryan secures funding from both the UK’s Department for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation

You can print 300 postage stamps, each one a powerful diagnostic laboratory, for a total price of about one cent. These tiny miracles of sustainable technology will be going where sophisticated diagnosis is currently unaffordable.

For me, this all began last year with one of the most riveting TED talks I’d ever watched. It was DFA’s George Whitesides telling us how he had come up with a way to print clinical test equipment onto paper at virtually no cost.

Here’s an extract from the press release. It was issued on February 27, 2011:

Diagnostics For All to Develop Three New Agricultural Tests

$2.99 million grant awarded to develop low-cost tests to identify spoiled milk and infected maize and to boost productivity of African farmers

Diagnostics for All (DFA) announced today that it has received a US$2.99 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development. The two-year grant will fund development of three agricultural diagnostic tests that support livestock health and have the potential to dramatically improve productivity and health among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

The first diagnostic will test for milk spoilage by detecting the presence of bacteria. Most tests currently measure the acidity of milk – a proxy test that isn’t as accurate. Many small farmers contribute their herd’s milk to dairy cooperatives in Africa for pooling and sale to processors. Inaccurate testing means a single farmer’s spoiled contribution can contaminate an entire pool. Low-cost tests from DFA can also help pinpoint which farmer’s milk has gone bad, potentially helping identify cows with bacterial infections.

A second test to be developed under the grant would determine when cows are pregnant or in heat. Identifying cows that are ready for breeding, or already pregnant, will enable small farmers to better manage their herds. Currently, farmers rely on watching their cows for behavioral changes, or perform a potentially dangerous physical examination of the cow. Both methods are less accurate than DFA’s proposed test, which would measure hormone levels.

Finally, DFA will develop a test for the presence of aflatoxin, a poisonous substance produced by mold in maize. The mold can develop during growing, harvest or storage of the maize, and eating the grain can lead to hepatitis or potentially liver cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable to aflatoxin, and can become stunted and at greater risk of infectious diseases after exposure. Using diagnostics to ensure their harvests are mold-free will protect people from tainted grain and enable the farmers to get the best price for their grain at market.

The event in the first video was called Development That Works: Social Enterprise. It was hosted by the Pardee Center for the Study of Longer-Range Future, in conjunction with the Boston University Global Development Program, on March 31, 2011.