TU Delft malaria diagnostic device international runner up in James Dyson Award

News - 20 November 2018 - Communication

With the design of their Excelscope 2.0, TU Delft students were runners up in the international finals of the James Dyson Award on 15 November. The Excelscope 2.0 is a device for diagnosing malaria, based on a cheap smartphone. The students designed the housing for the device and fitted it with a ball-lens, enabling it to operate as a microscope.

In 2015 there were an estimated 212 million cases of malaria worldwide. With 90% of cases in sub-Saharan countries, there is an urgent need for affordable and accurate diagnostic equipment. This is because current methods are either cheap but unreliable or expensive and time-consuming to use. The TU Delft students’ Excelscope combines reliability with user-friendliness in order to achieve rapid, low-cost diagnoses. 

Easy to operate

The students fitted a ball-lens to a smartphone camera, enabling it to operate as a microscope. A specially-developed algorithm can then rapidly recognise blood cells infected by malaria parasites in blood samples. This makes it possible to conduct many more diagnoses. The device is so easy to operate that it can be used after only brief instructions, with no intervention from medical professionals. Thanks to its rechargeable back-up battery, the Excelscope is not dependent on the electricity grid.

Prize

In September, the Excelscope's ingenious design secured Team Tazama the first prize at the Dutch National Finals of the James Dyson Award. This international student design award challenges young people to ‘design something that solves a problem’. On 15 November, the team competed against twenty international finalists. 

Inspired by Hackathon

“While participating in a medical hackathon in Uganda, my students came up with the idea of designing something to improve malaria diagnosis”, explains Jan Carel Diehl, assistant professor in Sustainable Development in the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. On their return to Delft, it turned out that doctoral candidate Temitope Agbana was working on combining a microscope with a smart algorithm for malaria diagnosis in the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE). "It was great that students in the building right next to us were working on the same idea”, says Agbana.  “I was eager to help them and we decided to pursue their concept for the Excelscope together.”

Overarching programme

This partnership has proved productive, but the research is also part of an overarching programme. “The Excelscope is the entry-level model, so to speak. We are now able to detect malaria at a concentration of eight parasites per microlitre, which is an improvement on existing diagnostics using microscopes. Besides which, microscopes need to be operated manually and it takes years for people to gain sufficient experience to do it quickly and accurately”, says Agbana. Early detection is particularly important in the battle to combat malaria effectively. This is because the parasites not only spread from mosquitoes to humans, but also from the blood of infected patients back to mosquitoes and further.

Schistosomiasis

We are also working on diagnostics for other diseases, such as schistosomiasis (previously known as bilharzia) or trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) in livestock. The equipment involved will soon be adaptable to meet the needs of users and the available infrastructure. “We could make something extremely complex, but it is far better to look at the context first”, argues Diehl. “At its simplest, you could imagine a smartphone that you convert using parts made with a 3D printer from materials available locally and then program it using an open-source app.” This is the solution he proposes for detecting schistosomiasis, a tropical disease which affects around 250 million people worldwide, most of whom have no access to diagnosis or treatment.