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Students devise low-cost TB test
« on: 05/04/2009 21:14:44 »

RALEIGH -- Many students have idealistic notions about making the world a better place. But three N.C. State University seniors have a plan.

They have invented a small device that can diagnose tuberculosis in seconds, at a cost of less than a dollar -- an invention that, if successful, could help eradicate an epidemic that infects millions of people every year in poor countries.

It started as a senior project in the university's engineering entrepreneurship program. It has turned into a business plan, with real potential for saving lives in countries such as India, China and South Africa.

"It has transcended school," said Hersh Tapadia, 22, an electrical engineering major from Raleigh.

Tapadia and biomedical engineering students Daniel Jeck and Pavak Shah spend 25 or 30 hours a week huddled in a small office on Centennial Campus, refining a device that looks like little more than a miniature microscope connected to a computer.

It allows even an untrained person to diagnose TB by sliding in a stained slide smeared with a patient's sputum. If the person is infected, TB bacteria glow bright white on a black screen. If the patient is not infected, the screen remains black.

It's a simple concept. But many people, including the three students' professors and mentors from around the country, say the device has big potential. With more refinements, it could also be used to diagnose malaria and HIV, the other major scourges of the developing world.

Naman Shah, Pavak's brother and a medical student at UNC-Chapel Hill, said they are treading on new ground in an area that many major medical research firms and drug companies ignore.

"This isn't the next huge thing that's going to make a company billions of dollars," said Naman Shah, 24, who has worked in infectious disease clinics in India. "But there are a lot of people who need it."

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 14 million people have active, infectious TB. In 2007, more than 9 million people developed the disease and 1.75 million died from it. The vast majority of cases are in poor countries in Asia and Africa.

The problem is not a lack of treatment. Cheap or even free TB drugs, funded by governments and grants, are available in much of the world. If the disease is caught early, many patients can go on to live healthy lives.

Results take too long

But in poor countries, TB is often not caught until it is advanced and highly contagious. A diagnosis requires a trained scientist who can recognize TB cells under a microscope.

If a health clinic lacks a trained technician, it can take months to send samples to labs and get results. By then, patients may have died or infected others.

International health officials estimate that about 40 percent of TB cases are missed using that method of diagnosis. For years, public health officials have sought better diagnostic tools in poor countries.

Pavak Shah said many researchers ignore the need for simple, low-cost tools as they focus on building better, faster and more complex medical devices. He said he wanted instead to create a tool that could be used easily by an untrained person, without benefit of a fancy laboratory.

"Clean labs that are temperature-controlled, that's something we take for granted here," said Shah, 20. "In the places we're talking about, air conditioning does not exist."

To market they go

The three students have become so passionate about their invention that they hope to turn it into a business and get it to market rather than leaving it to languish on a shelf at NCSU, as the vast majority of senior projects do after grades are given.

If their venture, called MedCount, is successful, it could be a first for NCSU's Entrepreneurship Initiative. Tom Miller, head of the initiative, said he doesn't know of any project created by undergraduates that has been taken to market. But he said this one has that potential.

While many students spend their time building gadgets that charge cell phones or enhance video games, these students are absorbed in global issues far removed from their privileged upbringings. Tapadia and Shah are the sons of immigrants from India, and all three were raised in the Triangle.

They spend school breaks searching for mentors and meeting with potential customers. Pavak Shah traveled to Boston to seek the counsel of a respected Harvard researcher, who has since become a supporter of their research. And Tapadia, while attending a family wedding in India, made a side trip to talk to workers in TB labs that might use the device.

'Form the question'

They say the project has taught them that it is possible to solve many of the world's major problems. It just takes the right mindset.

"Once you form the question, it's surprising how easy it is to find the answer," Jeck said.

Stephen Walsh, head of NCSU's Engineering Entrepreneurs Program, said these three students have absorbed the basic message the university is trying to instill.

"You can go out there and go after your meaning," Walsh said. "We want them to figure out, how do you make meaning with your life while making a living?"


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Students devise low-cost TB test
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