Importance of Affordable Diagnostics

An article in the most recent issue of The Scientist highlighted the importance of affordable diagnostics for global health. Although scientific advances have improved treatment options for many global diseases, a lack of effective, low-cost diagnostics hinders the health of many in the developing world. For example, medicines to treat HIV and tuberculosis have been life-saving for many individuals, but they can cause liver damage and patients on these medications must be monitored. However, the primary test for liver damage requires expensive equipment that is simply not available in low-income countries. To solve this problem, a Massachusetts biotech company, Diagnostics For All, developed a 10 cent paper-based test that can diagnose liver damage with a single drop of blood.

Other U.S.-based companies are working on similar low-cost diagnostics. In Texas, Global BioDiagnostics Corp is developing a more effective test for tuberculosis that will cost just $5. Both of these projects are excellent models for incorporating the idea of access into the research process and designing products that can actually be utilized in low-resource settings. However, there is often not enough money for companies to develop these kinds of products. In fact, a principal investigator at PATH says that “the problem [with low-cost diagnostics] is almost always funding.” Therefore, it is crucial to increase funding for affordable diagnostics. Not only would increased investment support these U.S.-based companies, but the end products could truly transform health care in the developing world.

Update: Another article, published in The Scientist on January 10, also addresses the urgent need for better diagnostics in resource-limited countries. In addition to making diagnostics more affordable, truly successful new diagnostics must also be “sensitive, specific, user-friendly, rapid, equipment-free and deliverable” and these considerations must be built into the R&D process. Overcoming these research challenges hinges not only on additional funding, but collaboration between research companies, the healthcare industry and local governments. Several Product Development Partnerships (PDPs) are leading the charge in these kinds of innovative collaborations. For example, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), a PDP based in Geneva, Switzerland, is working with manufacturers, health organizations and ministries of health and developing diagnostics from the initial design to the operational research phase to determine the diagnostic’s efficacy in a low resource setting. The importance of these kinds of new tests, which will result in more appropriate treatment plans that can save lives and money, cannot be overlooked.

-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern

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