Using sound waves to detect deadly diseases

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and acoustic levitator

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and his colleagues in Brazil are using acoustics to detect disease. Their collaboration was one of the six projects shortlisted in the Brazil category for the prestigious 2018 Newton Prize.

Sand fly biting skin
Sand flies transfer the parasites that cause Leishmaniasis
Bruce believes that new technology is the key to tackling the challenges of disease and poverty. He said, “As an engineer, working with the end-users of this technology, this is an area where I can make a difference. Leishmaniasis is a tropical disease that’s endemic in 97 countries. More than a million new cases occur each year world-wide and without early diagnosis, people are at risk of disability and death.  Parasites, transferred by sand-fly bites, cause ulcers of the skin, mouth and nose with skin lesions resembling leprosy. Unchecked, infections can be life-limiting, leading to horrific disfigurement, fever, loss of red blood cells and an enlarged spleen and liver.”  

Bruce is working with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil.

Regular communication is crucial in this interdisciplinary project. Here Professors Silva and Moreira in Brazil discuss the experimental results of a new diagnostic device in a video link to Professor Drinkwater in the UK.
The team have made some fantastic breakthroughs in the area of disease detection: “We are developing small and robust prototype acoustic devices that have the potential to detect Leishmaniasis. The lab-on-a-chip devices use acoustic forces to sort and sense thousands of cells, or other microscopic objects, simultaneously. In Leishmania, the infected cells (macrophages) have different mechanical properties from healthy cells. We can exploit this difference in various ways, sorting diseased from healthy cells is just one. The devices can also help detect antibodies in blood and antigens in urine samples by concentrating them with ultrasonic forces. This leads to more rapid diagnosis and monitoring of the disease.

If successful, theses devices could have a huge impact on the lives of those in Brazil and other developing countries: “Leishmaniasis  is one of the NTDs that lag far behind HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria when it comes to research funding. It affects 20,000 people each year in parts of Brazil where poverty, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation are major risk factors. If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other NTDs, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. “

If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other neglected tropical diseases, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people.

“These devices are undergoing testing by Brazilian biomedical researchers working on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) with promising results. After further development of the devices, the next phase will be field trials in hard to access areas where help is most needed.

More information

Newton Fund:
The Newton Fund was launched in 2014 to promote economic development in countries eligible for official development assistance (ODA). A grant from the Newton fund and the Royal Society made possible Bruce’s research partnership with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil, enabling them to bring together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in engineering, physics and biomedicine.

https://www.newtonfund.ac.uk

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leishmaniasis  (Content note: graphic images depicting disease)

World Toilet Day: In celebration of the toilet

For World Toilet Day we spoke to Gro Slotsvik, Global Challenges Research Manager for the Faculty of Engineering, about the importance of toilets and how engineers are working with local communities around the world to create global access to clean water and sanitation. 

“It’s one of the less glamorous parts of life. You’ll spend some part of your day, every day, in its company. You probably rarely think about its positive impact on your life. The humble toilet, does not get the attention it deserves.

“So opens the Water & Sanitation session of day three of the Global Engineering Congress in London. Over 2500 participants from 82 countries are finding new ways to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together. There are civil, electrical and mechanical engineers, policymakers, research councils, UN agencies, charities, development organisations, artists and lawyers. And there is a buzz in the air.”

The sanitation challenge

“As the world tackles poverty, climate change and providing education for all, poor sanitation is stalling progress. Worldwide, 2.4 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation services, like toilets. Poor sanitation causes the deaths of over 1,200 children under five, every day. In 2016, inadequate sanitation and hygiene were the cause of more than half a million deaths from diarrhoea alone. A lack of toilets and latrines affects education, health, economic development and our environment.

“The toilet, our unsung hero of sanitation, has a key role to play in achieving the SDGs. None of the other Goals, on equality, poverty and climate action, can be achieved without achieving Goal 6. This Goal states that by 2030 all people should have access to clean water and sanitation. We need toilets to save the world.”

The solutions

“There is no quick fix when it comes to toilets. The toilet that works well in rural Somerset is unlikely to work in rural Sudan. Differences in water levels, space, number of people using the same toilet and how hot, cold, dry or humid the climate is mean that different places need different things. The challenges are diverse and so the solutions need to be too.

“Sanitation for all cannot be achieved without engineers who understand the local context. At the University of Bristol, our engineers are addressing the SDGs in partnerships with local communities and researchers. When we help create earthquake resilient schools in Nepal, map waterborne infectious diseases in the Congo or build sustainable energy systems for refugees in Rwanda, we do so with those who know the conditions best.

“In the case of making sure the world has access to clean water and sanitation, it starts with the humble toilet. Next time you see one, consider giving it a nod of thanks. Much like the engineers fixing sanitation all over the world, it’s a lifesaver.”

More information

Engineering for International Development
The Faculty of Engineering runs a number of international developmental projects across Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia: