$1M national tech challenge could have global impacts

National News

NIH Technology Accelerator Challenge Credit: NIH

Today, the National Institutes of Health announces a $1 million prize competition to target three global diseases.

The Technology Accelerator Challenge encourages developers to create new ways to detect diseases with a high public health impact.

The challenge is focused on sickle cell disease, malaria and anemia.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will offer additional support to designs that can be developed into products on a rapid time frame.

“Bioengineers are pioneering the development of cutting-edge, cost-effective, mobile and point-of-care technologies,” said NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Director Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D. “This challenge is an exciting way to engage and inspire our community to address an urgent health care need.”

NIH will award up to $500,000 for a top finalist and smaller awards to approximately five semi-finalists. The Gates Foundation will separately review winners and honorable mentions to consider them for follow-on support. This may include a grant of up to $500,000 as well as possibly include consultations, partnerships for clinical data collection, software development, scale-up, and manufacturing.

Although tools exist for the three blood disorders, they can be challenging to deliver in low-resource settings.

Low-resource settings include costs of the test and the expertise required to administer the tests. Ideally the tool would be low-cost, portable, self-contained, adaptable to multiple diseases as well as be able to use patient and environmental information to interpret the test result.

The challenge hopes to create technology that could be used to rapidly screen large populations as well as provide practical tools to further help physicians.

“New diagnostic tools could address a major burden of disease in low- and middle-income country settings,” said the Gates Foundation’s Dan Wattendorf, Director of Innovative Technology Solutions, Global Health. “Handheld, low-cost tools can bring testing out of a laboratory and to the point of need. Digitally enabled tools can help provide objective guidance for those administering a test, reducing procedural errors and facilitating collection of more complete diagnostic information.”

Sickle cell disease is a group of inherited red blood cell disorders arising from a single genetic mutation that can cause severe pain and potentially lead to premature death. The condition affects millions of people worldwide, most often those of African ancestry. About 300,000 infants each year have sickle cell disease. Without newborn screening programs and early diagnosis, 50-90% of children with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa die before age 5.

Malaria is caused by a parasite that is spread to people through a bite from an infected mosquito. In 2018, approximately 228 million people contracted malaria, with the vast majority of those being in sub-Saharan Africa. The Gates Foundation is committed to creating new digital tools with the goal of eradicating malaria entirely.

Anemia affects roughly a third of the world’s population and occurs when the body loses blood, does not make enough red blood cells or destroys too many red blood cells. The most common causes of anemia include iron and other nutritional deficiencies, hemoglobin abnormalities, and infectious diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and parasitic infections. Young children, pregnant women and all women of childbearing age are particularly prone to the effects of anemia.

The deadline for applications is June 2nd, 2020.

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