Gates Foundation award for UCD project targeting child pneumonia

Posted 09 December 2015

Following a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, a multidisciplinary team of researchers based at UCD Conway Institute will begin field testing their BIOTOPE (biomarkers to diagnose pneumonia) research project in Malawi. gHealth Research will use a new testing procedure to improve the speed and accuracy of pneumonia diagnosis.

Pneumonia is an infection that inflames air sacs in the lungs. It is considered a preventable illness by the United Nations and is responsible for almost one million global deaths of children under the age of five every year. More than 99% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, where BIOTOPE is initially aimed.

The United Nations and World Health Organization has created a global action plan to end preventable deaths from pneumonia by 2025.

According to Grand Challenges Explorations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative funding the research, BIOTOPE “will develop a method to quickly and accurately diagnose bacterial pneumonia in children with acute respiratory infections so that the correct treatments can be given.”

Malawi in southeast Africa has a population of 17 million. It is currently ahead of schedule in its efforts to reduce child mortality. From 1990 – 2013, deaths of children under the age of five declined from 245 to 68 per 100,000 live births. This was the highest recorded reduction worldwide and surpassed Millennium Development Goal 4 to reduce this figure to 82 by 2015.

BIOTOPE’s success could play an active role in maintaining this trend as the United Nations estimates that widening access to appropriate care in communities could result in child pneumonia mortality decreasing by up to 35%.

Pictured top (l-r): Chris Watson, Research Director, gHealth Research; Carolanne Doherty, Project Manager, gHealth
Research; Joe Gallagher, Clinical Director, gHealth Research; and Richard Drew, Consultant Microbiologist.

The project’s focus on accuracy is important to ensure the correct form of pneumonia is identified and necessary treatment is offered. Current practice for diagnosis in less developed countries frequently relies on measuring the breathing rate of patients and assessment of physical symptoms. This can lead to confusion with other illnesses and make accurate diagnosis extremely difficult.

There are three types of pneumonia but antibiotics can only be used to treat its bacterial variant. Misdiagnosis can lead to the inappropriate use of this treatment, increasing the antibiotic resistance of the patient and delaying correct referrals.

“BIOTOPE will use easily obtainable symptoms and signs from children using modern electronic sensors in the community. These will be combined with new blood and urine tests to accurately identify bacterial pneumonia and the children most at risk of illness,” said Dr Joe Gallagher, clinical director of gHealth.

“It is planned that this will be deployed as a mobile phone solution in the future. This will lead to more accurate identification of bacterial pneumonia, reduction in inappropriate antibiotic use, and appropriate early referral of the most at risk of serious illness.”

gHealth was founded in 2013 and is based at UCD Conway Institute. The gHealth team working on BIOTOPE includes Dr Chris Watson, research fellow at UCD School of Medicine and research director of gHealth; Dr Joe Gallagher, clinical director of gHealth; Dr Carolanne Doherty, project manager at gHealth; and Dr Richard Drew, consultant microbiologist in the Rotunda Hospital and Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street.

They will be joined by colleagues from Mzuzu Central Hospital in Malawi, Luke International Norway, Queen’s University Belfast and the Imperial College London Global eHealth Unit.

gHealth focuses on global health issues to develop innovative strategies for diagnosis, treatment and management of disease. BIOTOPE was one of 59 proposals selected from 1,800 submissiona and will begin field testing BIOTOPE in March 2016.

The Grand Challenges in Global Health family of initiatives was launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003. It focuses on 14 major scientific challenges that could lead to key advances in preventing, treating and curing diseases in the developing world. Grand Challenges Explorations began in 2007 and twice each year invites high-risk, high-reward proposals that have the potential to meet these challenges.

By: Jonny Baxter, digital journalist, UCD University Relations