Northwestern professor creates inexpensive test for infectious diseases

Jordan Harrison, Assistant Campus Editor

A Northwestern professor was awarded a grant to work on a medical testing device that can be used to diagnose infectious diseases in remote, inaccessible areas.

Biomedical engineering Prof. David Kelso, who earned a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been working since 2006 on a device called Savanna that currently tests mainly for HIV and tuberculosis but has the ability to be used to test for diseases including hepatitis and human papillomavirus in the future.

Kelso said the device will speed up diagnosis and treatment of diseases in rural areas.

“These tests are currently done on very large, very expensive automated systems that are in labs in the capital city or in district hospitals but the patients are being seen in rural clinics in remote areas,” he said. “What this does is it puts the automated testing equipment in the clinic in the rural area and that way the result can be turned around the same day while the patient is there.”

Mark Weislogel (McCormick ’96), a professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Portland State University, advised Kelso on the design after he ran into problems transporting fluids in the Savanna device. Weislogel said he helped Kelso account for capillary flow in the design.

Capillary flow is the movement of a liquid due to interactions between the liquid and a solid surface. It is more prominent in small systems like Kelso’s device, Weislogel said.

“We’re trying to exploit the capillary force so we don’t have to have any moving parts — no pumps,” Weislogel said. “We want passive systems that do things naturally due to capillary forces, due to wetting and surface tension.”

Weislogel is the principal investigator on the Capillary Flow Experiment on the International Space Station, which involved studying the behavior of liquids in the absence of gravity.

Kelso said his device will also help monitor viral levels after diagnosis and, in the case of HIV, help ensure patients take medications correctly.

“When a person is first starting therapy, some of the drugs have side effects and the patients really stop taking their medications,” he said. “But it’s been shown if you can demonstrate that the viral levels are coming down and that the medications are doing their job, then the patients will take their medications.

Kelso said he plans to field test his device in South Africa by the end of this year or early next year, and will then test Savanna in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Quidel Corporation in the top ten countries that have the highest rates of HIV.

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