Starting today, MassDevice.com will run several blog posts on the topic of building innovative medical technology for the developing world, featuring some of the leading minds in the field.
This feature will continue up through May 17th and the first annual World Health Medical Technology Conference at Boston University.
The World Health Medical Technology Conference is a one-day workshop dedicated to exploring the opportunities and challenges of designing, building and funding medical technologies for the developing world. It’s a way to bring together stakeholders from the medical technology industry with the leading minds in the Global Health movement. To find out more about the conference, visit the conference’s website for an agenda, registration information and a list of speakers.
Our first installment features Dr. Una Ryan, CEO of Diagnostics For All, a Cambridge, Mass.-based non-profit that’s developing ultra-low-cost diagnostics for the developing world, built on a paper platform. The technology was developed out of George Whitesides’s laboratory at Harvard University.
“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to do things for the developing world and trying to find the right technologies and the right business platforms. I think either one is necessary, but they’re not sufficient unless you get both.
“One of the chief challenges is that it’s not enough just to take something that we have in the developed world and make it smaller and cheaper, because it’s still probably too big and too expensive. What you need to do is NOT think about what we have in the developed world, but to look at the problems of the developing world and find the simplest answer.
“Basically, what’s wrong with all of our trying to re-engineer health care is we’re trying to fix up what we have, rather than just look at the simplest way to manage the health of the population.
“Diagnostics are going to save millions of lives if they’re cheap enough and easy enough to use in the developing world, but it does not make sense to keep them separate. With air travel being what it is and the movement of people, what happens anywhere happens here, so we’ve got to think globally.
“I think that it may actually be easier to get certain of these new ideas cemented in the developing world, because they don’t have the infrastructure and all the hang-ups we have here about how to do things. And if we’ve shown we can do things very cheaply and effectively in the developing world, we may be able to bring those systems and technologies back to the first world.
“At Diagnostics For All we’ve gone the route of trying to make diagnostics for pretty much zero cost, not just cheaper than what we have here. So, we’ve started at paper, which is everywhere, and we’ve used patterned, printed paper for our diagnostic test. This way we have all the sophistication of lab-on-a-chip, but we don’t have to put that chip into anything, or put electricity into that chip to run it. The entire device is the size of a postage stamp. I think those are the kind of things that are going to be disruptive.
“The other thing about the developing world is that they never went through all the infrastructure of wires and boxes and telephones, they went for cellphones. Everything that we do is telemedicine-compatible. I think there are two things you can look at right there, you can do things in the field immediately, but you can also store that data remotely and mine that database later.
“The other lesson is that cellphones are used in a much more sophisticated way in the developing world as well, so they can teach us.
“I’ve been thinking about doing things for the developing world for 20 years. I used to run a vaccine company where I tried the dual markets of making vaccines for travelers at high margins and then non-dilutivly funding developing-world work with the Gates Foundation. But it’s very difficult to do, because your investors want the high-margin opportunity, and even if you’re not diluting them they don’t want the management distracted doing these other things.
“At DFA we’ve come up with a completely novel model, which is to have a non-profit that is dedicated to getting these diagnostics to the developing world, but because there’s so much commercial interest in these platforms we will do licensing deals with for-profit companies. Our for-profit arm is a biotech company called Paper Diagnostics that is wholly owned by the non-profit. That’s our model. It’s something I’ve dreamed up over the years.
“Large companies need to start thinking simply. Look at the whole concept of bed nets: They won’t cure malaria, nothing will, but just adding MRIs and cyclotrons and new buildings are not going to do it for sure. If you look at things that do work in the developing world, they’re very simple ideas. We’ve been able to harness very high technology but put it onto a simple platform. It’s not just a simple piece of paper it has microfluidic channels in it.
“But it will require a different way of thinking [for large companies], because they’re used to building machines. It’s like razorblades without razors. The large companies are excited about the cost-effectiveness of our product and the fact that we use very small amounts of blood and very small amounts of reagents.
“I think honestly that medicine globally is moving more towards empowering the patients, to monitor, to do surveillance and to do compliance for their drugs. I see this as something that can be established then become the modus operandi.”
As told to Brian Johnson.