Portable Diagnostic Device Helps African Physicians Diagnose Cancer

A new portable diagnostic device is helping physicians in Africa diagnose a common type of cancer.

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A portable device designed by researchers at Cornell University is being used to diagnose cancer within an hour in sub-Saharan African countries.

The device, currently under testing in Uganda, has successfully diagnosed cases of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a common, yet hard to diagnose cancer which often affects people who are HIV positive and immunosuppressed. The cancer is caused by a type of herpes virus and affects the cells that line the lymphatic system or blood vessels, forming masses and blotches on the skin, lymph nodes or other organ systems such as the gastrointestinal tract.

“While pathologic diagnosis is critical for Kaposi’s Sarcoma diagnosis, unfortunately Kaposi’s Sarcoma is most common in a part of the world there is a critical lack of pathologists and highly variable standards,” said Ethel Cesarman, MS, PhD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine who co-developed the technology.

The “KS-COMPLETE” platform is comprised of two parts, the first of which processes a biopsy – normally of skin – into very small pieces, before the second part uses DNA amplification to look for the specific herpesvirus that causes most cases of Kaposi’s Sarcoma to help physicians make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment.

“We envisage that this system should help a patient make a single visit to a health center and walk away with a diagnosis of cancer to a treatment unit,” said Aggrey Semeere, MD, physician and Senior Research Scientist at the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) at Makerere University College of Health Sciences in Kampala, Uganda, who is co-leading the project.

Semeere explains that the current process requires at least two visits to a health center, which can take a month or more before the patient receives a result. The diagnosis also requires a specialist pathologist and is sometimes difficult to do accurately.

“We envisage faster access to life saving chemotherapy since over 95% of patients are diagnosed with severe Kaposi’s Sarcoma requiring chemotherapy. Also we can see some reduced cost in terms of time to travel (absence from work etc..) since in one visit we can render a diagnosis,” added Semeere.

The researchers are still testing the platform and have so far used it on 506 biopsies collected from 3 HIV clinics in Uganda, with the device doing well in preliminary testing. They also hope it could be used for detecting other types of cancer, for example Epstein-Barr Virus, which causes a specific type of Lymphoma in some African countries.

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