Materials, Biology, and Systems Engineering Collaborate to Improve Malaria Diagnostic Test

Tackling a problem as complex as eradicating malaria in the developing world requires collaboration among experts from diverse subject areas. That’s why GE Global Research, where I have the privilege to work with scientists and engineers on projects that span multiple GE businesses — from Healthcare to Oil & Gas to Power & Water —  has partnered with Global Good to develop a malaria diagnostic test platform. Global Good supports new research endeavors – including our project – that will save lives around the world. This project is a great example of what can happen when you bring different elements of science and engineering together.

My lab consists of chemists, chemical engineers, material scientists and process engineers focused on the development of membrane and separation technologies and applying those technologies across all fields. In addition to the Global Good efforts, I have technologists in my lab working on subsea enhanced oil recovery technologies for Oil & Gas; others exploring new separation systems for produced water treatment for Power & Water; and folks developing hydrophilic hollow fiber separation membranes for purification of biological drugs for Healthcare.

The close collaboration among diverse skill sets is essential to advance the technology development. The larger team working on this Global Good project includes organic and polymer chemists, chemical, electrical and optical engineers, material scientists, and biologists. Materials expert Matt Misner, who leads the project, brings the materials science expertise to redesign the paper-based lateral flow assay (LFA) for the malaria test.  Electrical engineer Ralf Lenigk leads the task to develop an optimized reader for the malaria LFAs. Additionally, biology experts like John Nelson, who is an expert in proteins, genes and cells that make up the human body, add their deep fundamentals to the team.

The general idea for this Global Good partnership is that we have a bioactive paper that is read by an improved reader and tells clinicians on the front lines of medical care in the developing world whether a patient has malaria. By improving the sensitivity of the test, healthcare providers will be able to diagnose and treat malaria more effectively than ever before. As John Nelson will explain in a separate blog post, the LFA would function like a pregnancy test where you have a small kit that analyzes a sample — in this case, a few droplets of blood. But for the full system to work, we need to collaboratively integrate the fundamental understanding of biology, materials and systems engineering into the test.

If you are interested in learning more about this project, read Matt Misner’s blog post about the program with Global Good and detail the contributions the team is making, in particular on the chemistry and materials side. John Nelson has also shared a blog post that discusses how biology fits into the program. And finally, Ralf Lenigk writes about on how we are optimizing the reader technology and its design for manufacturability. GE Reports also has more details on the collaboration between GE Global Research and Global Good. We are uniquely positioned to do some great work with Global Good that improves the quality of care in the developing world and ultimately, will save lives.