Bringing the Lab to the Village: An Update from Northwestern’s Global Health Initiative (GHI)

As part of NU@AHEAD’s Professional Development Brown Bag series on Thursday, July 1st, Kara Palamountain, Executive Director of the Global Health Initiative (GHI) at the Kellogg School of Management, gave an update on the progress the GHI group has made since it received a $4.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation in 2006. GHI’s uses an interdisciplinary approach (GHI’s work spreads across various NU schools, including Kellogg, McCormick and Feinberg) to develop and distribute affordable diagnostic devices for infectious diseases to be used in low-resource countries all over the world. GHI initially receives proprietary intellectual properties donated from partner companies, such as Abbott or Invernes, while NU students and faculty then develop that IP into a usable product, test it, and in the end hope to return it to these companies for them to bring the product back to the market.

One of GHI’s products, a handheld portable Early Infant HIV Diagnosis Test (EID), has been developed by NU students and faculty and is currently ready for clinical testing. As is the case with many low-income countries, most births do not take place at healthcare facilities and thus HIV testing of infants is rare, if not non-existent. In Uganda for example, out of the 1.2 million births each year, 100,000 infants are exposed to HIV. Out of these 100,000 infants, an estimated 20,000 babies in fact end-up with an HIV-infection, with only approximately 0.007% of all infants actually getting tested for HIV.  GHI has taken students to various low-resource countries, such as Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda for market research and market entry analysis.

During their market analysis, GHI researchers and developers have identified several problems, which are an intrinsic part of the lack of market structure. One of the problems is the inherent shortage of healthcare workers, especially technicians. Imagine a piece of equipment breaking in a lab in Durban, South Africa. The closest technician who would be able to fix this piece of equipment lives in Nairobi, while the next closest technician lives in Germany. GHI researchers, therefore, identified the need for portable, easy-to-use, rugged and accurate devices. Another problem researchers identified lies within the distribution of lab results.  Researchers analyzed how long it takes for test results to be delivered to the patient.  In Botswana for example, this could take between 2-16 weeks, in Mozambique at least 3 months, and in Namibia 1-4 weeks. The unpredictable timeframe of delivering tests to the patients results in a backlog of unclaimed results. Most patients can’t afford to return to clinics every week to check in on their test results.  This is a major problem that needs to be solved to assure the delivery of lab results to the patient.

While there are many obstacles in bringing a product to an underdeveloped country, there are routes for the development and distribution of diagnostics products that will benefit global health.  GHI researchers and developers are optimistic and are looking forward to see the first product clinically tested soon.  More updates to follow!

Download a PDF to Kara Palamountain’s NU@AHEAD presentation here.

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