Empowering Citizen Scientists to Do It Themselves

By Justin Bourke

DIY Bio Activists Seek to Improve Health in the Developing World

Chances are you’ve never heard of Chagas disease, unless of course you’re among the 40,000 people infected every year. It usually starts with a visit from The Kissing Bug, a blood-sucker named for it’s odd habit of “kissing” its hosts on the face during the night. The disease can be countered with antiparasitic treatments if caught early, but once it reaches the chronic phase the best you can do is delay or prevent its symptoms. These can include potentially fatal heart weakness or failure, malnourishment, or even dementia and motor impairment. There is no cure.

Diseases like Chagas are common and can have devastating effects in the developing world. There are a number of institutions that work to eliminate these and other health risks in the public interest – governments, inter-governmental agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), and non-governmental organizations and charities. Many of their efforts have been successful and well known (thank you, WHO, for eradicating Small Pox), but their scale is limited by the amount of funding and political will they can muster. In an attempt to reach some of the more neglected areas of the world, some scientific progressives have begun advocating a less orthodox approach – do it yourself.The DIY method, now a full-fledged underground movement, is based upon the belief that the average person can not only become equipped to solve their own challenges, but also contribute to the greater scientific community through open data sharing. This requires access to three things that most don’t have – proper equipment, training and opportunities for engagement. While there have been success stories in the States, providing these amenities in the developing world is a greater challenge. To find out whether or not DIYbio can help solve health issues abroad, several pioneers have begun the task of breaking down these barriers.

Equipment and Training

Any biologist will tell you that having the right equipment is essential to their work, but costs can be prohibitive in the developing world. According to Guido Núñez-Mujica, equipment that is already expensive in Western countries is even more so in developing communities due to high shipping and distribution costs. Núñez-Mujica intends to not only bring affordable equipment into remote areas, but make it easy to use as well. He is the co-developer of theLavaAmp, a handheld PCR device based on a concept originally proposed by Nitin Agrawal and colleagues at Texas A&M. PCR, an acronym for Polymerase Chain Reaction, is a method of copying DNA sequences. Until recently, the process required hefty machinery costing several thousands of dollars. Núñez-Mujica’s prototype, built by engineering firm Biodesic, will be no bigger than a cantaloupe, cost only $300-500 and be able to perform a DNA diagnostic in a matter of hours. That means if you get bitten by a Kissing Bug, you can find out if it was carrying Chagas on the spot. In fact, Núñez-Mujica was recently in Venezuela helping people do just that. He hopes that a teenager or hobbyist will be able to use the LavaAmp for everything from diagnosing Chagas to studying crop famine. “Rather than wait for solutions to come to them, [these communities] must be able to take steps themselves, even if those steps seem small.”
Nina Dudnik, meanwhile, seeks to not only bring affordable equipment to developing countries, but also provide much needed training. The difference is that her focus is on universities. Dudnik is the founder of the non-profit Seeding Labs, which collects unused equipment from labs in America and sends it to universities in Africa, Latin America and Asia at affordable prices. They also provide training both abroad and through intensive fellowship programs here in the States. According to Dudnik, their equipment has already been used by thousands of students and has directly lead to over 125 new publications, two new patents and a tool for diagnosing multi-drug resistant tuberculosis – a disease impacting one-third of the world population and an even greater percentage in poor communities.

Engagement

Having affordable equipment and training is essential, but it doesn’t guarantee engagement. Few in their lifetimes are able to get hands-onexperience with the wonders of science, and even fewer get the chance to create real results. This is where companies likeKeegoTech come in. Their business is built on a microbial fuel cell (MFC) known as the MudWatt. In simple language, it’s a battery that runs on dirt. The technology is still too young to create enough power for practical use, so instead they sell the MudWatt to schools  as an educational tool to engage children in science. In doing so, they have discovered that scientific advancement can come from anyone. Says their co-founder, Keegan Cooke, “MFC technology has the potential to become a cheap and reliable way of charging small electronics, but we’re not quite there yet.  Scientists don’t yet know the best arrangements of electrode material or organic components to create enough power. So we invite students to experiment with our kit and post their findings on our community site. This has led to some very interesting ideas we never would have thought of.” Cooke’s favorite example is an eighth grader in California named Ricky, who alongside his father was able to double the output of the MudWatt from dirt in a local riverbed – a sample that KeegoTech is now working to analyze. But while they see this approach working in the developing world, their ability to successfully focus their efforts there is still uncertain.

The Future of DIY Bio

Organizations like LavaAmp, Seeding Labs and KeegoTech have begun to demonstrate what can be done when we make it possible for the average person to engage in science. And they are already getting investors. Seeding Labs’ fellowship program in the U.S. is underwritten by Novartis. LavaAmp was recently awarded a $40,000 grant from Start-Up Chile, a program run by the Chilean Ministry of Economy. But the movement is young and unproven, and the likelihood of continued funding remains unsure.
Still Joseph Jackson, one of the premier authorities on citizen science, is undeterred. A key partner in bringing Núñez-Mujica’s LavaAmp to life, he sees potential for the DIY movement to take off in the developing world. “These countries generally have fewer restrictions compared to the U.S., and enough demand for solutions. If we can get past the infrastructure barriers, some of them could become ideal breeding grounds for open innovation.”
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