MIT Student's Startup Invents Cheap Malaria Rapid Test

Stephen Levy

May 6, 2014

3 Min Read
MIT Student's Startup Invents Cheap Malaria Rapid Test

"What if I told you I could save one million lives with just refrigerator magnets and a laser pointer?" asks MIT graduate student John R. Lewandowski, who is also founder and CEO of Disease Diagnostic Group (DDG; Shaker Heights, OH).

Lewandowski is one of the inventors of the Rapid Assessment of Malaria (RAM) device, a battery-powered machine that uses magnets and lasers to identify malaria-infected blood. Along with Case Western Reserve University Medical School malaria expert Brian T. Grimberg, PhD, he started DDG to develop and commercialize the device, which has already racked up an impressive list of awards.

RAM is portable and easy to use in the field. Testers do not need specialized medical training and a test can be performed in about a minute. Each test costs about 25 cents. Importantly, the test can also detect malarial infections in people who do not yet show symptoms of the disease.

"Even if you have a small amount in your system and you're asymptomatic," Lewandowski told Boston Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray, "you can still spread the infection to others." If a mildly infected person gets bitten by a mosquito, the insect will infect each subsequent victim it attacks.

Bray's story, "MIT Scholar Fights Malaria with Magnets" describes how Grimberg's research into malaria revealed a new way to identify the illness:

"The parasites that cause the disease consume red blood cells, but cannot digest the iron in those cells. Instead, the parasites concentrate the iron into rod-shaped crystals that remain in the infected person's bloodstream, and so show up on a blood sample.

"So the key to their breakthrough is using the iron in the blood as a marker for the disease. That is where the magnets come in. A drop of blood mixed with a little water is inserted into the RAM machine, where magnets create a magnetic field around the sample. Then, the machine shoots a beam from a low-powered laser at the sample.

"If the person is infected, the magnetic field will cause the bits of iron in the blood sample to line up in an orderly pattern that partially blocks the laser light. By measuring the amount of light that passes through the sample, RAM can quickly spot infected blood, or confirm that a person is free of the disease."

In DDG's latest win, the company was recently awarded the 2014 Cupid's Cup. In a last-minute twist to the competition, Lewandowski accepted Cupid Foundation chairman Kevin Plank's offer of an additional $25,000 in exchange for equity, bringing the company's grand prize winnings to $100,000. According to the Foundation, Plank said the equity would be held by the Cupid Foundation, which funds the annual competition.

Stephen Levy is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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