A new mobile iPhone application developed by UC Berkeley undergraduates is promising to overcome a roadblock in the treatment of river blindness in rural African communities.

River blindness is caused by the parasitic worm onchocerca volvulus, which is transmitted to humans by blackfly bites. River blindness has a high incidence rate near fast-flowing streams in tropical climates, with 99% of cases occurring in Africa, and 1% in Latin America and Yemen, where experts speculate the fly migrated with the slave trade centuries ago. The disease is termed “river blindness” due to the effect the parasite’s larvae (microfilariae) have on their human host: if left untreated, the microfilariae migrate to the skin and eye, where human immune response is somewhat limited. The microfilariae can lacerate the cornea, over which scar tissue forms to eventually cause permanent blindness.

As the second leading cause of infectious blindness, river blindness has a devastating impact on local communities, often forcing migration from fertile land. Local communities face a trade-off between productivity and susceptibility. The World Health Organization estimated that in the 1970s, river blindness cost communities $30 million in potential economic opportunities.

While somewhat correlated with geographic location, the relatively high incidence of river blindness in Sub-Saharan Africa is a result of poor health infrastructure in rural agricultural areas that cannot provide thorough prevention and treatment programs. Many blackfly bites are in fact needed to cause infection, indicating that diligent community interventions can curb parasitic transmission. By partnering with pharmaceutical giant Merck to distribute the drug Mectizan (which kills the parasite’s larvae), the Carter Center spearheaded a successful campaign to eliminate river blindness in Colombia, and is currently working in Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

However, treatment and prevention campaigns were suspended in some communities after ivermectin (the generic label for Mectizan) was found to harm patients who were also infected with another parasite, commonly known as Loa loa, or African eye worm. Similar to the onchocerca volvulus, Loa loa is transmitted via deerflies found in the rainforests of West and Central Africa and can also cause blindness. Ivermectin administered in patients with high Loa loa levels (exceeding 30,000 per milliliter of blood) can potentially lead to severe or fatal brain damage.

In order to quantify the prevalence of Loa loa parasites in a patient and determine their eligibility for ivermectin treatment, laboratory technicians traditionally counted them manually in blood samples—a technique not conducive to use in the field or in mass treatment campaigns, such as those led by the Carter Center. By drastically improving the efficiency and accessibility of Loa loa screening, however, the new iPhone app CellScope Loa, promises to increase the reach of river blindness treatment and prevention programs.

Born from an optics class project in 2006 by a group of undergraduate students at UC Berkeley, the mobile phone application was first developed by UC Berkeley’s Fletcher Lab in 2009. A $400,000 project to expand its global health application was later funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UC Berkeley Blum Center for Developing Economies, USAID, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID). Thomas Nutman, the head of clinical parasitology at the National Institutes of Health and a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley, led the team of UC Berkeley engineers at the Fletcher Lab to design CellScope Loa.

CellScope Loa is breaking ground in the field of mobile imaging technology because it uniquely combines hardware and software to provide point-of-care testing. The hardware—a 3D printed plastic base, microcontrollers, gears, circuitry LED lights and a USB port—captures images of the sample, while an algorithmic software analyzes the “wiggling movements” observed to determine the prevalence of the parasite. CellScope Loa is more accurate than laboratory testing, which was more vulnerable to human error. The entire testing process also takes about three minutes: one minute to obtain a blood sample via finger prick, and two minutes for the microscope to analyze the sample using motion testing.

Their initial testing of 33 patients in Cameroon yielded zero false negatives and two false positives; Fletcher and Nutman are taking 15 devices back to Cameroon this summer to test 40,000 more patients. If successful, CellScope Loa would mark a significant stride in mobile health technology, which is shifting the approach—and increasing the impact—of public health initiatives. Although its applicability is somewhat limited to motion-sensing tests (versus tests for antibodies that diagnose other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B), CellScope Loa can also be used to guide ivermectin treatment of lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis, and may have future applications in tuberculosis and malaria testing.

Jacqueline Fedida

Sources: Bloomberg News, The Carter Center, Science of Translational Medicine, UC Berkeley, Washington Post
Photo: Bloomberg

remote areas
Google has partnered with the French space agency, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, to provide rural and remote areas of the world with Internet access. The partnership aims to reach higher ground with the Project Loon initiative.

Project Loon is a Google research and development project with the mission of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas. The project uses high altitude balloons to create an aerial wireless network that project Wi-Fi signals.

The balloons are solar powered and each is coordinated to make movements in a complex formation to provide continuous service. Google’s new approach on these balloons involves using technology with powerful satellites. Powerful satellites will provide more responsive Internet for the balloons to harness and spread.

They rise more than 60,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, placing them far beyond the reach of airplanes and atmospheric storm systems.

Satellite Internet is already becoming faster and more inexpensive at a steady rate. About 1.5 billion people get home Internet through a satellite connection, though only 0.2 percent of people in developed countries are connected through satellite.

Google wants to launch 100,000 balloons into the stratosphere to offer free Internet access in remote and rural locations around the world, and retrieve them when they lose air and fall to the ground.

To date, there are 75 Google balloons airborne, hovering somewhere near the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. These balloons automatically regulate their altitudes according to the algorithms to catch wind drafts and keep them on path.

A majority of the world still lacks Internet access, even after the 1.8 billion people that joined the Internet in 2014. An astounding 4.4 billion people still have never been online.

Internet access can benefit those in developing countries, especially those in India, where the population has more mobile phones than sanitary toilets. In India, over 1 billion people are still offline.

Moreover, China’s massive population of 1.3 people may be iPhone-obsessed, but more than half of its population still remains disconnected.

The Internet can be a useful tool for farmers, as access to the Internet allows farmers to be updated on constant climate changes, and projected problems in the seasons that may affect crop growth. Moreover, Internet access can also be a useful education tool used in schools for learning, and it can improve literacy rates.

Google’s balloons may sound expensive, but research actually indicates that these balloons are cheaper than setting up and maintaining cell towers, and the balloons are also more effective to bring access to remote areas.

Although Google’s project has faced criticism and doubts along the process among Project Loon, Google notes that the next big step is testing how the balloons handle thousands of pounds of pressure.

Google’s engineers have spent weeks trying to isolate any problems they had in the past with the balloons that are already hovering over vast remote areas. Google has the potential to deliver its promise of Internet access across the world and to regions that have been without it with precise research and design.

Sandy Phan

Sources: Google, NPR
Photo: Digital Trends

AIDS and cancer have become some of the most widely known fatal diseases. Now, these two diseases have been linked – Kaposi sarcoma cancer has been known to cause HIV/AIDS. However, Cornell University engineers have created a new smartphone-based system, which might help detect HIV, and Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer linked to HIV/AIDS.

The smartphone-based system consists of a “plug-in optical accessory and disposable microfluidic chips, for in-the-field detection of the herpes virus that causes Kaposi Sarcoma.” David Erickson, engineer and creator of the system says that “the accessory provides an ultraportable way to determine whether or not viral DNA is present in a sample.” Erickson and his working partner, a biomedical engineer, Matthew Mancuso, have also explained that the smartphone app can also detect other maladies and health conditions including: E. Coli, Hepatitis, malaria, and other infections.

According to Mancuso, “the system is not chemically based and does not use the phone’s built in camera.” Instead, the system uses gold nanoparticles to diagnose these diseases. According to Science Daily, “gold nanoparticles are combined with short DNA snippets that bind to Kaposi’s DNA sequence,” then the particles and the Kaposi sequence are combined and added onto a microfluidic chip. If DNA is present, then particles which affect the light transmission of the solution clump together. This quickly causes a color change and allows scientists to identify if you have the disease: if the solution turns bright red, there is little to no amount of Kaposi sarcoma in your DNA, and if it turns purple, then patients are diagnosed with the disease.

For many, this is a wonderful scientific advancement. It allows users to diagnose the condition with little training.  According to Erickson, “Expert knowledge is required for almost every other means of detecting Kaposi Sarcoma,” Mancuso says. “This system doesn’t require that level of expertise.” Erickson and Mancuso are now collaborating with experts at New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical College. They plan to create a portable system for collecting, testing, and diagnosing samples that could be available for use in the developing world by next year. They also hope to broaden their scope of diagnosis to other diseases and to introduce their product to developing nations by 2015.

– Stephanie Olaya

Sources: Business Wire, Science Daily
Photo: Afrogle

video games
The video game industry is huge – worth about $78 billion in 2012 – the size of the movie and music industry combined. Yet almost all games are produced in the developed world. The limitations on producing games in the global south are manifold – technological, education, and financial. So how can game creators in these areas grow?

Even in relatively wealthy South Africa game consoles are years behind industry leaders. Support from game publishers outside their core territories is minimal. On top of that, hurdles to creating games on the current platforms are high: access to the specialized hardware and licenses provided by the console manufacturers are expensive and not given easily.

The most common platform for gaming in Africa and Asia is the mobile phone. In Africa, of the 650 million mobile phones, Nokia Series 40 and BlackBerry 7 are still the dominant platforms. Adam Oxford of explains that, “Mxit and BiNu are really big social networks geared up for feature phones, with massive followings in South Africa and Nigeria. There are loads of games on both platforms.”

Although there are not many local game makers in the developing world, Africa has a handful scattered in countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. Nana Kwabena Owusu of Ghana’s Leti Games thinks this shortage of talent is an education problem. “There are good creators, but retraining them to think in terms of game development, merging technical and creative thinking, is tough.” This is not a problem restricted to Africa – the education system in the U.K. has only just been restructured to encourage good programmers, and game design is still mostly learned though experience in studios.

By giving the opportunity of learning how to develop games and programs in Africa, a new market could be tapped. Even though the most common electronics in Africa are outdated in comparison to East Asian, American, and European products, there is still the opportunity for new developers to sell to American markets. Developing games on the Android and iPhone markets is an easy way to insert African developers into a market that has much potential to grow. This increase in developers in Africa could in turn boost the strength and diversity of many African nations’ economies.

– Matthew Jackoski

Sources: The Guardian, MCV
Photo: Wonder How To

Scientists Use iPhone Microscope to Diagnose Parasites
Consider the public health benefits of having the ability to use an electronic device the size of a mobile phone to diagnose diseases usually requiring expensive lab equipment and logistical support. Well thanks to a group of innovative scientists operating in a remote area of Tanzania, the iPhone microscope could usher in the future of a technologically driven global health policy.

Using nothing more than an iPhone, a flashlight, tape, and a camera lens; scientists were able to use their iPhone microscope to detect parasitic worms in a group of 200 students located on the Tanzanian island of Pemba. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto-based physician remarked, “To our knowledge, this is the first time the mobile phone microscope had been used in the field to diagnose intestinal parasitic infections.”

Parasitic worms – clinically regarded as Helminth infections – affect nearly 1.5 billion people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). By utilizing the iPhone microscope, health care workers will be able to analyze samples quickly and in close proximity to the patient, allowing for immediate parasitic identification and treatment. Thus far, the iPhone microscope diagnoses have been 70 percent accurate, and with greater zoom capabilities and higher resolution, is expected to improve in the near future.

The potential benefits of the iPhone microscope in alleviating global health outbreaks is promising due to its portability and ergonomic efficiency. By utilizing readily available technology such as the iPhone microscope to combat disease, aid workers have found an indispensable ally in the mobile phone market.

– Brian Turner

Source: CNN