The EU project “DiscoGnosis” goes to Africa for a fight against endemic and epidemic diseases

Published Monday, 25 April, 2016
Updated Monday, 25 April, 2016

Dr. Cheikh Fall at the Institut Pasteur de Dakar handling the LabDisk. Source: Benjamin Lopez-Jimena, University of Stirling

This is a guest blog post written by Dr. Konstantinos Mitsakakis, DiscoGnosis Project Coordinator

Today, 25 April 2016, is World Malaria Day and we have some good news for the regions heavily hit by endemic diseases, such as malaria, and epidemics such as Ebola and Zika.

Last year, in my blog post published on the Digital Single Market website, I was enthusiastic and full of hope about the future of the EU funded project, DiscoGnosis.  The project was coordinated by The University of Freiburg in Germany, through its Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK), in a strategic alliance with the Hahn-Schickard research institute in Freiburg. Its outcome is a disc-shaped platform, the “LabDisk”, which integrates all biochemical components that are needed for a fully automated analysis within about 1.5 hour after inserting a small amount of blood (200µL) and simply pressing the “Start” button of a compact, portable device. This is a revolutionary change in the diagnosis concept (at the point of need) and methodology (detecting the “genetic fingerprint” of the pathogens).

One year later, and shortly before the end of the project (on 30.04.2016) I can say that my enthusiasm was well rewarded. Our LabDisk system made it to Senegal!

In March 2016 the platform was brought to the Institut Pasteur de Dakar, Senegal, in order to be tested with real samples and against pathogens causing endemic diseases (malaria - which is a parasite; Salmonella typhi and paratyphi - which are bacteria) and epidemic diseases (chikungunya and dengue of different subtypes - which are viruses). Impressively, the LabDisk managed to detect all of them because each test is capable of identifying up to 12 different pathogens at once! Moreover, in cases where only chikungunya was assumed by the “traditional” detection methods, the LabDisk “discovered” co-infections with dengue and malaria, while in cases of unknown dengue subtypes, the LabDisk successfully identified them.

Last year it was Ebola, this year it is Zika…who knows what is next and how to manage it? The epidemics are undoubtedly global threats and take place in areas that are already burdened with endemic diseases (such as malaria). The co-existence of infections that all have fever as a clinical symptom, makes the diagnosis extremely difficult, especially considering the limited resources, training, and affordability in areas of high occurrence.

Therefore, we were all very glad when we saw that our system managed to detect infections that standard methods, like PCR, had missed to detect! However, we were unhappy with the fact that, especially in case of epidemics, patients are typically screened only for the epidemic-responsible pathogen, thereby missing other causes of disease, or co-infections, which leads to high risks of mortality due to other infections, rather than the epidemic itself.  This is the biggest evidence that we need multiplex systems like the LabDisk, and it gives us a strong motivation to proceed.  It also motivates our consortium to adapt the combination of biochemical reagents to detect additional diseases according to the global health needs. This high degree of adaptability is one of the most innovative features of the LabDisk.

The project has also contributed to capacity building by means of installing one device in Dakar and training the personnel to its use. In this way, a sustainable use at the point of need is ensured. Due to the current Zika virus outbreak, the project partners have expressed their motivation to integrate this virus in the detection panel, thereby responding to the epidemic in a fast, coordinated and efficient way.

If you want to know more about DiscoGnosis, you can visit us in our website, watch a video produced by the European Commission, a comprehensive technical presentation given by the project coordinator and two interviews regarding the necessity of point-of-care diagnosis.