The University of Glasgow takes the lead in pioneering an African diagnostic programme, which was showcased at a United Nations General Assembly event.
A groundbreaking research programme aimed at delivering affordable, reliable, and portable diagnostic solutions for multiple communicable diseases in sub-Saharan Africa took centre stage at a virtual event surrounding the United Nations General Assembly last month. This initiative, with a current focus on Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the recent addition of Réunion, is a collaborative effort between NGOs, Ministries of Health, and universities.
Presenting their work at the event were Dr. Harriet Mpairwe from the Uganda Virus Research Institute and Emmanuel Milimo from Pharmaccess Kenya, both partners on the Digital Innovations and Diagnostics for Infectious Diseases in Africa (DIDIDA) project. They were joined by UofG Professor Jon Cooper – the project’s principal investigator, who spoke to The Glasgow Guardian. The team at Glasgow also involves Professors Julien Reboud and Francis Mair.
DIDIDA is pioneering the development of low-cost, paper-based lateral flow tests, akin to those used in COVID-19 diagnostics. These tests are designed to detect multiple diseases and can be run on mobile devices using a process called loop-mediated isothermal amplification, which tests DNA samples collected by the lateral flow strips. These devices can then connect to mobile phones, where an app developed by the project employs artificial intelligence through deep learning techniques to analyse test results.
In terms of data protection and ethical considerations, the project is exploring the use of blockchain technology to ensure robust security measures. The broader program aims to facilitate the flow of information to healthcare providers and public health bodies. This data collection approach will enable national and regional healthcare authorities to establish real-time dashboards for tracking infectious diseases. Additionally, the research aims to address challenges related to current medical data storage in Sub-Saharan Africa. Speaking to The Glasgow Guardian, Professor Cooper pointed out: “Healthcare records are such that the linkage between mother and child in [current] records is particularly weak.” He added that “some of the digital technologies allow us to make these links.”
Emphasising the significance of DIDIDA, Dr. Cooper stated, “More than 50% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to essential health services, and in rural areas, it’s often difficult for patients to get an accurate diagnosis. DIDIDA is working to tackle that problem by providing a system that can be used anywhere to provide patients with appropriate diagnosis and the correct treatments. That will help improve patient outcomes and reduce the antimicrobial resistance that can come from offering patients ineffective drugs based on incorrect diagnoses.”
The project plans to appoint 18 PhD students to work across all five Sub-Saharan African regions, covering various fields of study, some of whom will graduate from the University of Glasgow. By the project’s completion in 2027, a new generation of African experts will be trained in cutting-edge diagnostic techniques that have the potential to transform the way public health is tested, treated, and monitored.
Currently, the project primarily focuses on testing for cholera, malaria, and schistosomiasis, which together claim nearly a million lives in Sub-Saharan Africa annually. Leading the DIDIDA project at UofG, Dr. Jonathan Cooper expressed his hope to expand the project’s scope to include other diseases such as HIV, HPV, and tuberculosis.
The project has received £6.75 million in funding from the EU and the UK Research Institute. Discussing the impact of Brexit, Professor Cooper welcomed the UK government’s decision to rejoin Horizon, a research and innovation funding program led by the EU Commission, which the UK had left as a result of Brexit. He told The Glasgow Guardian: “The period that we spent out of Horizon Europe meant that we weren’t part of the same discussions in determining the priorities for funding allocation.” Additionally, rejoining Horizon Europe has enabled the project to pursue additional grants from the EU in collaboration with colleagues from Uganda, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.