Three N.C. State University seniors have invented a small device that can diagnose tuberculosis in seconds, at a cost of less than a dollar. The invention, if successful, could help eradicate an epidemic that infects millions of people every year in poor countries.
It started as a senior project in the university's engineering entrepreneurship program.
“It has transcended school,” said Hersh Tapadia, 22, an electrical engineering major from Raleigh.
Tapadia and biomedical engineering students Daniel Jeck and Pavak Shah spend 25 or 30 hours a week huddled in a small office on Centennial Campus, refining a device that looks like little more than a miniature microscope connected to a computer.
It allows even an untrained person to diagnose TB by sliding in a stained slide smeared with a patient's sputum. If the person is infected, TB bacteria glow bright white on a black screen. If the patient is not infected, the screen remains black.
It's a simple concept. But many people, including the three students' professors and mentors from around the country, say the device has big potential. With more refinements, it could also be used to diagnose malaria and HIV, other major scourges of the developing world.
Naman Shah, Pavak's brother and a medical student at UNC Chapel Hill, said they are treading on new ground in an area that many major medical research firms and drug companies ignore.
“This isn't the next huge thing that's going to make a company billions of dollars,” said Naman Shah, 24, who has worked in infectious disease clinics in India. “But there are a lot of people who need it.”
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 14 million people have active, infectious TB. In 2007, more than 9 million people developed the disease and 1.75 million died from it. The vast majority of cases are in poor countries in Asia and Africa.
The problem is not a lack of treatment. Cheap or even free TB drugs, funded by governments and grants, are available in much of the world. If the disease is caught early, many patients can go on to live healthy lives.
Results take too long
But in poor countries, TB is often not caught until it is advanced and highly contagious. A diagnosis requires a scientist who can recognize TB cells under a microscope.
If a clinic lacks a trained technician, a common problem in poor areas, it can take months to send samples to labs and get results. In that time, patients can die or infect others.
International health officials estimate 40 percent of TB cases are missed using that method of diagnosis. For years, public health officials have sought better diagnostic tools in poor countries.
Pavak Shah said many researchers ignore the need for simple, low-cost tools as they focus on building better, faster and more complex medical devices. He said he wanted instead to create a tool that could be used easily by an untrained person, without benefit of a fancy laboratory.
“Clean labs that are temperature-controlled, that's something we take for granted here,” said Shah, 20. “In the places we're talking about, air conditioning does not exist.”
The three students hope to turn their invention into a business and get it to market. If their venture, called MedCount, is successful, it could be a first for N.C. State's Entrepreneurship Initiative. Tom Miller, head of the initiative, said he doesn't know of any project created by undergraduates that has been taken to market. But he said this one has that potential.