Diagnostics for the Real World: point-of-care diagnosis made easy

Author:Catherine Jewell
Position:Communications Division, WIPO

In an ever more interconnected world, the threat of infectious diseases is perhaps greater today than at any other point in human history. Controlling and preventing these diseases is a huge challenge – particularly in resource-poor regions of the world – and one that requires early detection. A ground-breaking new point-of-care diagnostic tool, developed by Dr. Helen Lee and her group at... (see full summary)


How did you become an inventor?

I really became an inventor through necessity. My goal has always been to develop diagnostics that are simple, accurate, rapid, heat-stable and inexpensive for resource-poor settings. Invention starts with a need, that’s what drives it forward. To be successful, one needs to be able to deal with failures, day in and day out: to bounce back and never give up.

I am also quite curious and was lucky enough to have parents who never put a ceiling on what I could do. Their response was always, “why not?” So I have had no ceiling to stop me and I always try to find a way.

What prompted you to move from the industry to academia?

My husband and I have an agreement. One time I move for his career and the next time he moves for mine. When I went to Abbott Laboratories, he left a very good job to follow me and then when he was offered a professorship at Cambridge, I followed him. I learned a lot and gained a great deal of valuable experience at Abbott, but the corporate world was not for me in the long run.

Tell us about Diagnostics for the Real World?

We set up the company as a spin-off from the Diagnostics Development Unit at the University of Cambridge in 2003 where a lot of the fundamental research was done. We are still scaling up our operations and now employ 40 people. We are for profit, but profits are capped at 15 percent for low- and middle-low income countries, and our motto is “balancing doing well with doing good”. I was determined to set up a company and scale up production and distribution. As I often say to my group, if all we do is publish a few papers in high-impact journals and develop a prototype, we will have failed. We are delighted to have secured a rather substantial order recently from The Global Fund. It’s our biggest yet. So it’s been all hands on deck.

What is it that you make?

We have developed a simple and robust way to detect infectious diseases at the point of care in resource-poor settings. It’s built around nucleic acid testing which not only enables earlier detection of infectious organisms such as HIV but can also monitor the effectiveness of its treatment. Conventional nucleic acid testing requires highly trained personnel and sophisticated laboratory facilities in order to extract, amplify and detect the targeted nucleic acids. It is a complex process that can be very difficult to carry out in a resource-poor setting. We set about simplifying that process and making it more user-friendly and robust. And we succeeded. Our device, the SAMBA II – our...

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