Projects that save lives

Four U of A researchers are among winners of this year's Grand Challenges Canada competition.

By Michael Davies-Venn on February 9, 2012

(Edmonton)  Four U of A researchers are among winners of this year’s Grand Challenges Canada competition. Each will receive $100,000 to develop innovative projects in different parts of the developing world aimed at saving lives or improving the well-being of millions of people. 

The winners are Aman Ullah (agricultural, food and nutritional sciences), Michael Serpe (chemistry), Karim Damji (ophthalmology) and Abdullah Saleh (medical resident).

Water filters to reduce disease

Aman Ullah will use modified keratin—a protein in poultry feathers—to make filters that remove arsenic from contaminated drinking water. Arsenic affects about 140 million people throughout the world, particularly in developing countries, he says, adding the filters have to potential to save millions of lives.

“Arsenic is a serious threat for human health, particularly for poor people living in remote villages of resource-limited countries. The only source of drinking water for these people is arsenic-contaminated groundwater,” Aman says.

Prolonged use of water containing arsenic can cause cancer in the lungs, bladder and elsewhere. Higher rates of cardiovascular disease, peripheral vascular disorders, respiratory problems and diabetes have also been linked to chronic high doses of ingested arsenic.

Better diagnoses with better tool

Michael Serpe says millions of people die in developing countries because they’re treated for diseases they don’t have.

“When people go to a clinician for, say, malaria, the clinician will just treat them for whatever they think they have, without anything to back up their diagnosis,” Serpe says. “The problem is that diagnostic devices are just not available...[or] the clinicians do not necessarily believe the results they get in cases where there are diagnostic devices.”

Serpe will work with colleagues in Nigeria and Pakistan to develop a device to test for multiple biomarkers—molecules that indicate the presence of a diseases. The aim also is to make it less expensive than other tests on the market.

“Instead of one test being positive,  they will have up to seven separate tests confirm the presence of a disease and this will boost the clinicians’ confidence on the result,” he says.

Helping prevent blindness in Africa

Since 2009, Karim Damji has been helping prevent blindness in Kenya and Ethiopia by training eye specialists how to assess, treat and operate on patients suffering from glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness in eastern and sub-Saharan Africa. Damji says support from Grand Challenges Canada will help advance that work.

“We hope to expand this program to other countries in east Africa,” says Damji. “We want to help develop centres of excellence in east Africa that will be expansions of a regional network to reach into sub-Saharan Africa. It’s about building capacity in Africa, so that Africans can run the show in terms of developing international standards of care, education and research.”

Connecting medical records for better care

Abdullah Saleh founded ICCHANGE, a non-profit organization he says creates models of infrastructure to help deliver health-care services efficiently in developing countries. The organization will be developing an electronic medical-record system for the 1.2 million people living in Kibera, a slum in Kenya.

The project will connect the medical records among seven clinics so patients’ health information can be shared.

“Right now, people are transient within the medical system,” Saleh says. “They go to different doctors for different reasons and none of their records are connected. Every time, it’s a unique diagnostic record.”
Saleh’s group plans to partner with another organization that has gathered geographical data on the slum and develop a GIS system that connects to the medical records system. “This will allow clinics to use a map to see where there has been an outbreak of cholera, for example. This information could be used to locate the water source and better treat patients, as well.”

A statement by Grand Challenges Canada describes each of these projects as a bold idea with great potential to save lives.