Western researcher's project for faster malaria diagnosis receives funding

Professor Ian CunninghamMore people in resource-constrained areas in Uganda may soon have better access to life-saving testing and earlier diagnosis of malaria, thanks to funding from Academics Without Borders (AWB) for a new project developed by two researchers from Western and Uganda.

Ian Cunningham, a professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics and Division of Medical Imaging and Biomedical Engineering at Western, is the research mentor on the project team entitled, “Developing a low-cost digital light microscope for remote diagnosis of malaria in resource-constrained areas.” He works closely with project lead, William Wasswa, a professor from Mbarara University of Science & Technology in Uganda.

Cunningham first responded to a call for volunteers and submitted an application to become a research mentor as part of AWB’s Strengthening Engineering Education and Research (SEER) program a year ago. Following online instructional workshops in early 2021 and a period where mentors work with trainees to develop a research proposal, Cunningham and Wasswa’s project was recently selected to receive funding that will enable it to continue.

“The goal of the SEER program is for mentors from primarily Canadian institutions to work with faculty in Uganda who haven’t completed their PhDs or who don’t have research backgrounds. We’re called supervisors, but we’re really collaborators,” said Cunningham, adding that the idea for their project was proposed by Wasswa as a way to address the number one killer among young people in Uganda – malaria.

“Treatments for malaria are only effective if you can diagnose quickly in rural environments so they can be started on a treatment regime quickly. The current system of sending a sample to labs in big cities for diagnosis is a barrier to that. My colleague proposed developing a low-cost microscope that can be brought to these locations. We want to build it for under $500 or so, whereas currently, just a lens is around $2,000 – so this would be a game-changer difference and very high impact.”

Their project builds on previous work done in this area in recent years. In addition to being smaller and less expensive, to be effective in many rural areas, microscopes must also be battery operated, able to withstand impact caused by bouncing around on hard roads and easy to use.

“This is serious research. We have to build the prototype, evaluate it, then do rural testing. Within the year, we will also have an external research proposal written and submitted,” Cunningham said. “The end goal, ultimately, is that the slides will be digitally-imaged locally and sent back to the lab digitally, but our first objective is to make sure pathologists are getting the right images to diagnose.”

Cunningham says he is looking forward to continuing this research and the potential for their group to make this scientific contribution.

“It’s exciting because we’re really invested in this project succeeding. I got involved in the program because I’ve been distressed for a few years now about the politics in this world. Public education in some countries is fabulous and some countries have fabulous private education, but you see the frailty of democracy in so many places. We need to have smart people who like to talk to keep a democracy moving. I’m a scientist and can work with local educators. Science education is where I can help.”