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World Sickle Cell Day – How science & engineering can help tackle deadly diseases

by Digital Team


Today marks World Sickle Cell Day – a conscious, international effort to raise awareness around Sickle Cell Diseases. One of the most common is Sickle Cell Anaemia, a disease resulting in red blood cells shaped like sickles, or crescent moons. Most of the millions of people diagnosed with Sickle Cell Disease live in, or have family ties to, Sub-Saharan Africa, and management comes in the form of sophisticated technologies such as blood transfusions, dietary supplementation, and even blood marrow transplantation. These scientific solutions have directly improved the quality of life of Sickle Cell Disease sufferers.

A non-invasive malaria test

Perhaps surprisingly, there is a positive consequence of having Sickle Cell Anaemia; it has a protective effect against malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that half of the world’s population are at risk of contracting. Science and engineering expertise are also helping to reduce the impact that this deadly disease can have.

Diagnosing someone with malaria can be a complicated process, often requiring the examination of blood under a microscope by a trained medical professional. As a result of this, many remain undiagnosed, and therefore without treatment.

Brian Gitta, a 24 year-old Ugandan software engineer, has developed a neat solution; a device capable of testing for malaria without drawing blood. The device, called Matibabu after the Swahili word for ‘medical centre’, clips onto a patient’s finger and detects changes in the shape, colour and concentration of red blood cells which can indicate malaria. It is low-cost, reusable, and you don’t have to have a medical degree to use it. For this work, Brian became the youngest winner of the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation last week

Creating a ‘Google Earth’ of cancer

Cancer is one of the most prominent public health concerns, with over 150,000 people being killed by cancer in 2016. One of the biggest hurdles in oncology is understanding cancer on a molecular level. To this end, Dr Josephine Bunch and her team at the National Physical Laboratory are building a ‘Google Earth’ of cancer. The team are attempting to map every single characteristic of several types of cancer, describing tumours in cellular, subcellular, and even molecular detail. It is hoped that mapping tumours in this way will reveal the mechanisms by which tumours grow and spread throughout the body, allowing researchers to build a complete picture of cancer, enabling better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

Assessing Alzheimer’s risk

A third deadly disease, also sadly all-too-familiar, is Alzheimer’s. This is a form of dementia, characterised by a gradual decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. 850,000 people are estimated to be living with dementia in the UK alone, and 1 in 3 people born in the UK this year will develop dementia in their lifetime. Genetics has a strong role in the onset of Alzheimer’s, and research published last year in the journal PLOS Medicine could be used in the future as a test of an individual’s risk of developing the disease. The researchers tested 31 genetic markers to assess the risk, including the known risk gene ApoE. The more accurately we can predict who will develop Alzheimer’s disease, or other types of dementia, the more confident we can be about the causes and risk factors for the disease. This knowledge will inform how we care for Alzheimer’s sufferers, and will accelerate the development of eventual therapies.

Research making a difference

Science and engineering innovation is already having a massive positive impact on human health. Measles vaccinations alone have prevented over 15 million deaths since 2000. Maternal mortality has fallen 50% since 1990, as a result of better medical care and improved sanitation.

It is an optimistic time for the specialists working in these areas, but as the technology itself becomes increasingly sophisticated, it can become confusing and distant to many people. Communication skills are vital here. Understanding and appreciating the innovations that can improve treatment of these diseases is a key step in widespread adoption of the latest, most effective technologies.

Goal 3 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’. To realise this goal, science and engineering expertise is crucial. With new vaccines, medical technologies, and therapies that have not yet even been conceived of, research can continue to allow us to live longer, healthier, happier lives.