Malaria, the CellScope, and Lessons Learned

“Cell phones are amazing tools. For some of us, they’re about staying in touch. For millions of people, it could be about staying alive.”  – Bill Gates, GatesNotes.com, 2010

The 2014-2015 rally cry of the World Health Organization (WHO) is “Invest in the future. Defeat Malaria.” The WHO encouraged countries, companies and foundations to “showcase their efforts and reflect on how to further scale up interventions.” As we observe World Malaria Day, we couldn’t help but think about our humble beginnings and reflect on what our past experience with malaria taught us about mobile health.

Let’s flashback to the summer of 2008, when CellScope’s co-founder Dr. Erik Douglas was testing the original CellScope prototype in a busy trauma hospital in Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This may seem like an unusual place to start for those who are unfamiliar with our founding story, but it was a fitting test location for the original CellScope which used mobile microscopy for remote diagnosis of infectious diseases. The year prior, Professor Dan Fletcher’s lab at UC Berkeley secured grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to modify the CellScope to diagnose malaria, and sent it with Erik to Goma to test it out in a real world setting.

CEO and co-founder, Dr. Erik Douglas demonstrating the CellScope prototype for health workers in Goma.

CEO and co-founder, Dr. Erik Douglas demonstrating the CellScope prototype for health workers in Goma.

Erik learned several very valuable lessons while working on the malaria CellScope project that have shaped our company’s mission and how we approach our work.  First, the experience solidified Erik’s belief that a remote diagnosis tool has the power to transform healthcare accessibility, erasing geographical boundaries between patients and providers.

However, if we are going to be successful in achieving accessibility, we must consider the full use case of the tool. This second lesson became apparent in Goma where Erik found Internet connection readily available, but workers lacked the supplies for blood sample preparation and had no alternative but to reuse gloves for weeks. It became obvious the challenges would be great, but not insurmountable. Solutions to these problems are achievable if we constantly evaluate the contextual needs of patients and their providers.

We’re more likely to succeed in creating real change in the health landscape if we (companies, research institutions, and foundations) work together. The CellScope team is still closely linked to the Fletcher lab and believe this partnership will lead to positive outcomes that leverage the strengths of each group.  For instance, as we enter into a commercial market we can drive costs of production down which is a huge barrier to sustainability. Meanwhile, Dr. Fletcher’s lab can continue to make breakthroughs in diagnostic research for diseases like loa loa filariasis.

Our partnership and the lessons we’ve learned from the CellScope Oto could one day help lab inventions transition into scalable, real world solutions. Another benefit of such partnerships is foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, can take the risks needed to find novel impactful solutions. To date the Gates Foundation has committed USD $2 billion in grants and another USD $1.6 billion, to the Global Fund to Fights AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to hasten the coming of a world free of malaria.

Today we commend the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their tremendous work in combating malaria and for taking the steps to invest in the future. You can learn more about the great work and initiatives of the Gates Foundation here.

Want to participate in World Malaria Day? The international partnership of the Roll Back Malaria Project has great resources and ideas on how you can get involved.

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