A test kit for the detection of two sexually transmitted diseased that just plugs into a smartphone has been developed by a young lady, mainly for the prevention of transmission from mother to child and for aiding healthcare workers in the developing world. We spoke to Dr. Tassaneewan Laksanasopin about her work.
Dr. Laksanasopin, you first came into the limelight a few years back with your micro-fluidic based diagnostic test for HIV and Syphilis that was powered by the headphone jack. In lay person’s terms please tell us about this kit, a dongle for detecting HIV and its utility for an average person?
The overall goal of this work is to develop a new test kit that is practical and reliable for remote use (outside hospital labs) to detect diseases or infections early on.
Diagnosis of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is very important for pregnant women.
The early detection and treatment could save many lives, both pregnant mothers and their newborns.
Hence, we re-designed the immunoassay (a test that looks for immune response of the person), which can be performed by a layperson, by simplifying user interface, minimising manual steps, and scaling it down into a small smartphone accessory.
With micro-fluidic technology (using tiny amounts of fluids), we can achieve a rapid reaction in minutes while the conventional reaction may take up hours.
We integrated three crucial processes in the diagnostic test – liquid handling, signal detection, and data communication – this is a low-cost device using an audio jack as a universal connector to smartphones.
This device was designed to eliminate a number of manual steps while including a user guide on the smartphone, pre-loading all test reagents on the disposable plastic chip for an automatic result to make the device simple to use and it does not require a skilled operator to perform the test.
You first tested the dongle in Rwanda. Was it from the perspective of the kit being most useful in the developing world?
In the absence of diagnostic tests in resource-limited settings (many areas in the developing world), disease is often treated based on clinical symptoms and local prevalence of disease.
The Ebola outbreak in western Africa is one of the examples of what a lack of diagnostic tests could lead to.
While a syndrome management approach may capture most patients requiring treatment, it also unnecessarily treats patients who do not require treatment and results in over-treatment, wasted resources and, potentially, increased antimicrobial resistance.
Equally important, this latter group of patients is not being treated for their disease.
In other cases, diagnostic tests are needed where asymptomatic infection is common, clinical features are non-specific or treatment is potentially toxic or difficult to administer.
Laboratories at many community-level clinics in developing countries are the most resource-constrained in the world, for example, there is very little money, minimal trained/educated workers, and unreliable ground electricity.
It is very challenging to deliver reliable results in these settings.
Point-of-care tests, like this test kit, can improve the management of infectious diseases and clinical outcomes through prompt diagnosis and appropriate delivery of treatments for preventable and treatable diseases in those settings in developing countries.
Are these kits meant for health care workers or are they for use by just anyone?
This HIV/syphilis test is developed to be used by healthcare workers. Since we focus on preventing mother-to-child transmission, the diagnosis should be handled by a medical professional or must have a process to integrate with the healthcare system.
This way we can ensure that all possible positive cases are taken care of properly.
However, point-of-care tests like this can be used by anyone because it is designed to be stand-alone and easy to use.
Few critical factors to consider are:
- What settings or goals those test kits are for (e.g. screening, confirmation, monitoring, etc. / at home, medical settings, etc.)?
- What test results mean (for whoever uses it and people around them)?
- What to do once users get the test result?
In other words, these test kits can be used by anybody but they have to evaluate whether the usage of such a kit is reasonable and advantageous or not (to minimize harm and unexpected outcomes).
How accurate is the test kit?
We tested our platform in Rwanda where Rwandan health care workers used the kit to test blood samples collected from 96 patients via finger-pricks. For HIV test, we achieved 100% sensitivity and 91% specificity.
While the syphilis test yielded 77% sensitivity and 89% specificity.
The high sensitivity of our tests for both HIV and syphilis are attractive for screening: in remote settings, potentially infected patients can be diagnosed immediately, and their samples can be confirmed by tests with greater specificity, different antigen preparations, test principles and/or biological targets.
What have been the improvements over the last couple of years and is the device useful for diseases other than HIV and Syphilis?
This micro-fluidic technology can be adjusted to identify markers for other diseases by modifying the reagents needed for each disease. The point-of-care test can also be used in pre-screening of blood donations as well as epidemiological surveillance (as many infectious diseases are poorly monitored in developing countries).
In terms of the smartphone accessory approach, it can be further integrated with electronic medical records and personal health records, with several layers of security built to protect patient identity. Various communication technologies have been utilised and developed towards the Internet of Things (IoT) system.
Battery and energy scavenger technologies are also further developed to make the portable device more suitable for resource limited settings.
Last year, you were a speaker relating to technology and its role in the transformation of higher education. Please tell us more about this area and the efforts you put into it?
King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) is known for strong curricula in science, technology and engineering, we need to ensure that students can apply their knowledge and skills which may become obsolete in the near future (with rapid technological change nowadays).
Various technologies and tools have been applied to classrooms and extracurricular activities to enhance students’ experience and learning which supports and transforms students to thrive in this world of uncertainty.
Soft skills or people skills are integrated in many classes and activities.
We also provide a supportive environment where students can mingle, innovate, and collaborate to generate research and innovations for a better impact on society.
You are known for your work towards aiding youth to develop entrepreneurial skills. Please tell us about your endeavours in this field.
The longer I work, the more I realise that entrepreneurial skills and mindset can be utilised in almost anything in life.
Most people think that entrepreneurial skills are only for those who want to have their own startups or run a business, but I believe these can be useful for those who work 9-to-5 jobs, R&D jobs, freelance, or even students.
To elaborate on that, mindsets and skills involved here are, for example:
- Start with what you have.
- Take actions and learn from it.
- Identify the opportunities.
- Desire to improve.
- Provide values to someone (including yourself!).
- Develop empathy (to understand others / situations).
Therefore, I try to integrate these mindsets and skills to the classes I teach through term projects and class activities.
I also focus more on learning and self-improvement of students who participate in the student incubator more than measuring the outcome of their business ideas (since the business may fail but students can come up with new ideas).
Please tell us about your younger years.
At a young age, I studied hard because I was focused on grades until I went to study abroad where I learned that my track record as a top student did not help me to live and learn in the new environment.
I would say my growing up years started way later than other people.
At 20 something, I needed to figure out a new purpose in life as all I had in the past was only academic performance. I asked myself lots of questions to get more input and analyse other aspects I never thought before.
What I needed was ‘unlearn to relearn’, not only the knowledge but also the thought process and perception towards individuals.
I have learned that people have their own set of logics, derived from their experiences and standards.
I have learned to accept that something can be changed and can be controllable, but many others cannot. So, I need to accept and change the way I do things.
I have learned to take risks and get out of my comfort zone (and keep in mind that every action has consequences).
I am grateful that I got the opportunity to study abroad and have gained many invaluable experiences and perspectives. I believe that I still need to grow every day!
In addition to self motivation, tell us about those who influenced and encouraged you on your way.
My previous teachers, PhD advisor, colleagues, family, and friends contributed to the way I see things and where I am going next. I always see good things in everyone around me and that motivates me to be a better version of myself.
The inspirational quote from Gandhi: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” is one of key messages I like to remind myself. Another quote that stuck in my head is “Please don’t have a nice day. Have a day that matters.
Have a day that means something.” from the movie The Last Word. When you direct your attention towards the right thing and when you find joy and energy to do more.
Our readers are mostly the youth in different parts of the world who look up to achievers, such as yourself, for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
First of all, embrace your uniqueness; there is no need to compare yourself to others. We need varieties and different points of view to make the world even better. We should accept ourselves and respect others.
Secondly, you may need to find yourself or your passion. You can create your goals (big or small) and do your best to achieve those. Learn and reflect from your experiences whether it is a success or failure. Nothing is ever wasted.
Lastly, don’t forget to invest in yourself! This is something I still try to get better at every day. Your own wellness (both mind and body) is very important. You need to take care of yourself before you can help others. Find your balance and what is best for you.
Dr. Tassaneewan Laksanasopin is a lecturer at Biological Engineering Program and the Interim Manager in charge of a student incubator at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Thailand. She received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Columbia University, USA in 2015 and B.Sc. degree in physics (First Class Honors) from Prince of Songkla University, Thailand. She has a strong background in biomedical engineering and specializes in micro-fluidics, point-of-care diagnostics, implementation of new healthcare technologies, and healthcare IoT (Internet of Things).
She received the Outstanding Dissertation Award from the National Research Council of Thailand and KMUTT’s Young Researcher Award 2018 in IoT Platform for Point-of-Care Monitoring and has several published papers to her credit.
Despite her background in Biomedical Engineering, she is passionate about entrepreneurship education.
She initiates new courses and activities to promote and develop entrepreneurial skills among students.
With her experience in scientific research and her commitment to improving the outcomes, she is actively examining the effect of learning approaches on student developments and assisting in technology commercialisation and startups from university’s technologies.
Photos: From the Archive of Dr. Tassaneewan Laksanasopin
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