Challenge #1: Find the Parasite - Duncan Blair, Alere
This Q&A is part of our Solve for M: Five Challenges for Ending Malaria series. Challenge #1 focuses on finding the parasite, so we sat down with Duncan Blair, PhD. Blair is the Director of Public Health Initiatives at Alere, the maker of one of the top malaria diagnostic tools on the market.
Q: Why are malaria RDTs a focus for your business?
With Alere being the global leader in rapid diagnostic tests for communicable diseases it would be almost impossible for us not to be involved in the malaria fight. Approximately half of the world’s population live in malaria-endemic areas, and consequently, are at risk of infection. With over 200 million infections and over 600,000 deaths a year, the risk to individuals and the burden on health care systems are enormous. To treat malaria appropriately and, just as importantly, to know when not to treat for malaria, requires accurate diagnosis. For decades, the only option for malaria diagnosis was microscopy, but microscopy is extremely challenging to implement with quality due to significant needs for complex equipment, electricity, water, well-trained and well-remunerated staff and many other reasons. The advent of the rapid diagnostic test (RDT) for malaria greatly improved our ability to diagnose malaria simply and effectively. RDTs are high quality, simple and quick tests that can be performed with just a few drops of finger-stick blood at the point of care and without any ancillary equipment. The benefits that the introduction of high-quality and properly deployed malaria RDTs have brought to individuals, to health care systems and to entire communities, is immeasurable.
Q: What are some of the new testing developments you’re working on?
We are always looking at ways to improve products or to fill a missing diagnostic need with a view of improving patient and health system outcomes. I think that we find ourselves at a time when malaria elimination is within reach and many of the tools needed to achieve that goal already exist, but not quite all of them. One of the missing pieces of the puzzle is a simple, affordable test capable of detecting the malarial parasites in asymptomatic patients. No such test exists today, but it will be critical for elimination, as we will need to find and treat patients who have no fever and no visible symptoms, but who do have circulating parasites and are therefore acting as a reservoir for future reinfection of the community. Alere is actively looking at developing just such a test.
Q: What are the key challenges you must solve to make this next-generation test a reality?
What we are talking about here is developing a test whose performance is many times better than the best tests currently available, which still meets our exacting quality standards and which can be reliably and sustainably manufactured, delivered and effectively deployed at accessible prices. We’re optimistic we can deliver that, given the great range of technologies at our disposal within Alere and the fantastic teams of dedicated and innovative people we have in R&D and manufacturing. So there may be challenges ahead, but we are very confident that we can rise to meet those challenges.