Case Western Reserve University Researchers Win National Patent for Humanity Award

A team of Case Western Reserve University researchers has been recognized with the Patent for Humanity award by the Commerce Department’s United States Patent and Trademark Office for the development of a portable, battery-operated device that uses magnets and lasers to quickly and inexpensively detect malaria.

The Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) team, whose award was in the category of medicine, will receive public recognition in a ceremony at the White House on November 16, 2016. Winners in the categories of nutrition, sanitation, energy, and living standards will also be recognized. Case Western Reserve was the only university among four recipients to receive a full Patent for Humanity award. In addition to this year’s award, CWRU received an honorable mention in 2015.

The new device, the Magneto-Optical Detector (MOD), is more accurate than current point-of-care tests and can diagnose all forms of malaria even at very low concentrations. The device costs about $1 per test and takes one minute to report results. (The current rapid malaria test takes 20 minutes. Microscope tests take about an hour when conducted by a trained laboratory technician or pathologist.)

Malaria: An Ongoing International Plague

Malaria has killed more people than any other disease caused by a single organism, including small pox and the plague. While the industrialized world has been rid of malaria for 50 years, the disease continues to affect the health and quality of life of impoverished populations.

Although the mosquito-borne illness is preventable and treatable, malaria is currently being actively transmitted within 97 countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of the world’s population, an estimated 3.4 billion people, is at risk. Of these, 1.2 billion are at high risk.

According to the latest WHO estimates, there were 214 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2015 and 438,000 deaths. Malaria causes long-term cognitive impairment in 25 percent of child survivors of a severe cerebral malaria infection. Pregnant women are at particular risk of malaria infection and its harmful effects on their health, as well as on fetal development.

Bringing Physics to Bear on Disease

The CWRU team is led by Brian Grimberg, PhD, assistant professor of international health at the CWRU School of Medicine, and Robert Brown, PhD, distinguished university professor in physics, with key research and development by senior research scientist Robert Deissler, PhD, mechanical designer/machinist Richard Bihary, visiting scientist William Condit, and undergraduate/technician Jason Jones, a CWRU alumnus. Except for Dr. Grimberg, all of the developers are members of the CWRU Department of Physics.

“We wanted to address a big gap in identifying people with malaria,” said Dr. Grimberg. “It is hard to diagnose the disease accurately using current technology. The standard microscope test can generate up to 36 percent false positives and nearly 18 percent false negatives. This means that many people infected with malaria are untreated and can die of the disease. Many others who don’t have malaria receive anti-malarial drugs unnecessarily, which wastes tight resources and contributes to drug resistance.”

When malaria parasites consume red blood cells, the parasites release iron-containing crystals called hemozoin into the bloodstream. Hemozoin has magnetic properties. Magnets in the MOD are moved close to the blood sample, causing the randomly oriented and iron-laden hemozoin crystals to align. The aligned crystals reduce the amount of laser light that can pass through the blood sample. This allows the MOD to quickly determine whether a person is infected and also determine the level of infection. The MOD can detect malaria using a single drop of blood.

“The Case Western Reserve University Department of Physics has long been involved with cutting edge research in a variety of fields, from dark matter research to MRI,” said Dr. Brown. “My colleagues on the malaria team and I work extensively in magnetic field research and fluid dynamics of magnetic and partially magnetic particles, which made it a natural fit to explore the particles created by malaria parasites. It is especially rewarding to our group to be able to work on both fundamental physics problems and applications toward improving the human condition.”

Dr. Grimberg estimates that MOD can save anti-malaria organizations $1.2 billion annually on direct diagnostic savings, increased workforce productivity, and more efficient allocation of prevention and treatment resources. Also, MOD testing is easily administered outside of laboratory facilities, including in community and remote settings. As a result, care workers will be able to bring accurate malaria testing and diagnosis to the patient, instead of requiring the patient to travel as many as 30 hours each way to a health clinic.

Collaboration with Hemex Health

Dr. Grimberg and his colleagues have conducted field trials of the MOD in the Amazon rainforest and Kenya. The team is collaborating with Portland, Oregon-based Hemex Health, which has licensed the MOD. Hemex will develop and commercialize the device for wider use.

“We are excited to have joined forces with Dr. Grimberg and his team to dramatically increase the odds for the successful diagnosis and treatment of malaria, which remains a devastating disease for so many throughout the world,” said Patti White, chief executive officer of Hemex.

The company worked with the Case Western Reserve University Office of Research and Technology Management to identify the MOD as a device compatible with Hemex Health’s mission of bringing lifesaving technology to underserved markets. Hemex plans to have the final version in trials in 2017 and released with regulatory approvals in late 2018.


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Founded in 1843, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine is the largest medical research institution in Ohio and is among the nation's top medical schools for research funding from the National Institutes of Health. The School of Medicine is recognized throughout the international medical community for outstanding achievements in teaching. The School's innovative and pioneering Western Reserve2 curriculum interweaves four themes--research and scholarship, clinical mastery, leadership, and civic professionalism--to prepare students for the practice of evidence-based medicine in the rapidly changing health care environment of the 21st century. Nine Nobel Laureates have been affiliated with the School of Medicine.

Annually, the School of Medicine trains more than 800 MD and MD/PhD students and ranks in the top 25 among U.S. research-oriented medical schools as designated by U.S. News & World Report's "Guide to Graduate Education."

The School of Medicine is affiliated with University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, MetroHealth Medical Center, the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the Cleveland Clinic, with which it established the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University in 2002.

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