Designing a Micro Solution to the Spread of Global Disease

Designing a Micro Solution to the Spread of Global DiseaseDesigning a Micro Solution to the Spread of Global DiseaseUsing a device that's roughly the size and price of an upscale cell phone, a team of Berkeley Engineering doctoral students hopes to halt the spread of diseases afflicting millions in the developing world.

Dubbed SeroScreen, the handheld instrument will test blood and other bodily fluids for the presence of infection. It will deliver an on-site diagnosis within minutes for influenza, skin infections, mosquito-borne viruses and many other ailments. Because the microdevice is quick, portable and cheap, it could dramatically reduce testing delays and prevent contagious diseases from becoming epidemics in poor and remote regions, the students say.

“The idea was to come up with something simple, specifically for the developing world, because they don't have the infrastructure we have,” says Nick Toriello, a 29-year-old student in the UCSF/UC Berkeley Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering. Since SeroScreen operates on electricity rather than optic or fluorescent measurements, it doesn't require expensive instrumentation. “What we have is something that can be powered with a 9-volt battery,” says 30-year-old Tanner Nevill, who works in Professor Luke Lee's lab.

Two years in development, SeroScreen remains in the early stages. But already, the concept has collected an impressive string of awards, including separate $10,000 prizes in the Technology Breakthrough Competition sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology and in the 2007 Silicon Valley Boomer Business Plan Competition.

“We're really interested in making this work,” says Nevill. “We don't want this thing to die and disappear in the annals of academic history.”

Thanks to a grant from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Nevill, Toriello and two fellow graduate students traveled to Ecuador in August 2006 to study the device's feasibility. They explored how the instrument could screen for dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease that is widespread in the tropics. “It's very easy to disappear into the lab,” explains Nevill. “You have to think about the practical applications.”

Interviewing government health officers in big cities and doctors in tropical clinics, the team got a first-hand look at Ecuador's medical delivery system. “Almost everyone was positive” about the device, says Toriello. Traveling in a “lancha” (a dugout canoe with an outboard motor), the group journeyed to villages along the Cayapas River in northern Ecuador—where dengue and other infectious diseases are rampant. Villagers often visit shamans when they first fall sick. The students learned that a case of dengue can take at least a week to diagnose and that fumigation efforts are limited to larger cities. “A diagnostic device that has a fast turnaround could have a profound impact on quelling outbreaks before they start,” Nevill predicts.

Back in Berkeley, the students, joined by Poorya Sabounchi (Ph.D. '07 ME), continue to refine the device, while pursuing strategies for incorporating and launching a business called SeroNostics.

A two-piece system, SeroScreen is a lab on a chip. It operates by placing a sample on a disposable cartridge that fits into a compact reader. Separate channels in the reader contain tiny beads coated with antibodies specific to the diseases being tested. As the sample is pushed through a channel, resistance builds up and is electrically recorded if antigens from the sample are captured by the beads. “The beauty of this device is it pretty much can be leveraged for any type of diagnosis,” Toriello says.

The students have concluded that SeroScreen must first become a commercial success before it can be introduced in the developing world. The device could be used in nursing homes, small clinics and doctors' offices, they say.

“I feel very lucky I've had the opportunity to have a cool idea and to explore and develop it,” says Nevill.