MSU-led group aims to improve health outcomes of low-income communities

The Global Alliance for Rapid Diagnostics, led by MSU researcher Evangelyn Alocilja, brings together researchers from around the world to help make technologies affordable and accessible to those who need them most.

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From left: MSU Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Professor Evangelyn Alocilja, and graduate students Chelsie Boodoo, Emma Dester and Saad Sharief. Alocilja, Boodoo, Dester and Sharief worked together to organize the inaugural Global Alliance for Rapid Diagnostics Innovation Forum in June 2021.

Evangelyn Alocilja, professor in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE), believes that the collective efforts of scientists and researchers are critical in detecting and preventing illness in impoverished and underserved communities.

In 2016, she founded the Global Alliance for Rapid Diagnostics (GARD) which aims to develop rapid diagnostic tests for populations otherwise unable afford them. Rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), sometimes called biosensors, are a quick, simple way to determine if a person has, or is at risk for, a certain disease, such as HIV or tuberculosis. RDTs can also be used to monitor certain health levels, such as glucose.

“With a biosensor, basically, your lab is in your hands,” Alocilja said. “If you look at a glucose meter, you put in the sample, and then you know the result. It's small, it's inexpensive, rapid — it's like real-time. Anybody can use it. Anybody can implement it. You can put it in your pocket.”

GARD is comprised of medical doctors, veterinarians, animal scientists, engineers, computer scientists, physicists, microbiologists, food and plant scientists, biotechnologists, and social scientists. On June 25-26, 2021, over 200 researchers from all these disciplines came together for the organization’s first annual symposium. 

Held virtually, the GARD Innovation Forum focused on bridging technologies to meet market needs — how to make RDTs more available and accessible to the populations who need them most.

“What we want to do is, we will bring market needs, the customers, the people who have the problem, and the scientists together to bridge the gap,” Alocilja said. “The niche of GARD is to bring these two groups together.”

Creating connections to solve problems with rapid diagnostics

Chelsie Boodoo, a BAE doctoral student, led the  planning and organizing of the GARD symposium.

“The point of doing this symposium was to promote communication, because you have researchers all over the world, but they don't know how to communicate well with each other,” Boodoo said. “Usually, they're connected through one another because they're collaborating on some sort of research project, or because they're all within the same university. You barely have people connecting in the same country, let alone amongst other countries.”

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The virtual lobby of the GARD Innovation Forum. Researchers at the symposium were able to effectively connect, converse and learn from others in their region and around the world in an online setting. (Photo courtesy of Chelsie Boodoo)

The GARD Innovation Forum offered programming to help scientists from around the world connect with each other and address topics such as antimicrobial resistance, preventing future pandemics, food safety and security, and zoonotic infectious diseases.

“We wanted to connect these researchers so that they can talk to one another to further collaboration, to further networking and to realize that 'hey, we all care about the same problems, and we all have different pieces of the solution,’” Boodoo said.

The symposium ran for 30 consecutive hours to accommodate researchers across time zones. Participants were grouped by region to make it easier to encourage further discussion and connection following the symposium.

“We wanted to bring everyone together to start these conversations,” Boodoo said. “Moving forward, we’d like for leaders in each region to have regional meetings and continue to foster the global connections they’ve made.”

Events during the forum included oral presentations, poster presentations and lightning talks, a livestreamed sculpture creation, and an Innovation Challenge in which teams brainstormed technologies to address global health issues involving rapid diagnostics. The teams presented elevator pitches about their technologies to a judging panel for the chance to win prizes.

BAE master’s student Emma Dester planned the Innovation Challenge. Dester was part of a team that won the T2Med Hackathon, an event in which graduate and medical students from MSU and the Israel Institute of Technology designed their own medical innovations.

“I was truly inspired with the ideas GARD Innovation Challenge participants produced in only a few hours, ranging from keeping the food industry safe and economically viable during the COVID-19 pandemic to improving water quality,” Dester said.

Saad Sharief, BAE doctoral student, organized the forum’s flash talks and poster presentations.

“It was wonderful to see researchers from all of the world collaborate to discuss how social, technological, and economical gaps can be addressed with rapid diagnostics,” Sharief said. “Such discussions are important to prevent future pandemics, and I am glad I could be a part of such a unique event”

Fostering collaboration and innovation

Alocilja and her research group plan to hold another GARD forum on February 25-26, 2022. In the meantime, GARD members in Africa and Asia are researchers in an Africa and Asia are planning ways for the two regional groups to continue discussions started during this year’s Innovation Symposium.

“The inaugural GARD event is meant to spark the interest of everyone and start creating these dialogues and these conversations amongst all these researchers,” Boodoo said. “It wasn't meant to be a one and only thing. It's meant to be the start of many things to come.”

The team also hopes to develop a mobile app to encourage communication among GARD members. This would allow for greater understanding of protocols and resources across different regions of the globe. 

“Usually, researchers are so focused on finding the solution that they don't think about how it can actually be used in the regions they're trying to solve it in. For example, malaria is not a big problem here in the U.S., but it is in Africa,” Boodoo said. “Actually hearing researchers explain their regional issues in detail, it helps us realize what we're doing is important, but we need to also think about what is happening in other regions of the world and why rapid diagnosis is so important.”

 

Alocilja said another goal of GARD is to encourage scientists to apply their research technologies and collaborate with communities and industry, rather than just publishing a paper and moving on to the next topic.

“Typically, once a technology is published in a paper, academia stops. It's now published, it's in the paper, and it stays on shelves. And it’s expected that somebody else picks it up, to bring it to the market,” Alocilja said. “Well, that’s a problem. The people who are interested in bringing a technology to the market do not have access to the brain or knowledge of the professor or the scientist who developed it.”

“I think the GARD group can grow in the area of innovation, because there aren’t many groups that would bring technologies and customer needs in the same place.”

Saving lives with affordable, accessible diagnostics

Boodoo said GARD’s work can play a major role in helping those who don’t have access to affordable healthcare technologies.

“When you live in a low-income area, whenever you have some kind of ailment and you go to the doctor's office, they take forever just to figure out what's wrong with you. So many people lose their lives because it took too long to get the correct diagnosis,” she said. “[Alocilja’s] work really resonates with me, because her tests are so cheap and you're able to actually approach the problem really quickly. By doing that, you save so many lives.”

To Alocilja, saving the life of someone in need is the greatest reward.

“If you can just save one life, one life, it's all worth it,” she said. “Our labor and pain are all worth it if you can just see one life being saved.” 

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