Life-changing Technology

Dec. 16, 2013 - Malaria kills a child somewhere in the world every minute. This life-threatening disease, caused by parasites transmitted through infected mosquitoes, can be prevented and cured if detected and treated early. But malaria afflicts primarily the poor, who often do not have ready access to healthcare and who tend to live in malaria-prone rural areas in dwellings that offer few barriers against mosquitoes.

This type of global health challenge inspired biomedical engineering students at UC Irvine who participated in Calit2’s Multidisciplinary Design Program.

The program engages undergraduates campuswide in research teams co-mentored by at least two faculty members from different schools. Under the guidance of biomedical engineering professor William Tang, and public health professor Dele Ogunseitan, two student teams designed portable, low-cost, rapid-diagnostic devices using microfluidic technology. One team’s device detects malaria; the other’s, HIV.

A few students from each team were selected to travel abroad to the very places grappling with these diseases. The expeditions, supported by a $25,000 gift from Edwards Lifesciences, provided the ultimate field research experience.

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) accounts for the vast majority of malaria cases and deaths in Southeast Asia. The country’s poverty impels its residents to move back and forth into neighboring countries looking for work and seeking adequate healthcare. This migration spreads the disease, increases reinfection and leads to inconsistent treatment.

Reaz Rahman was one of four biomedical engineering students who went to the Thailand-Myanmar border to study the spread, diagnosis and treatment of malaria. Working through the NIH’s International Centers of Excellence for Malaria Research and with public health professor Guiyun Yan, Rahman witnessed the impact malaria has on the lives of Thai villagers and Burmese refugees.

The students accompanied local health workers as they screened villagers for fever, a symptom of malaria. If fever is identified, the health worker takes a finger prick blood sample and transports it back to the clinic to test for infection