Innovating to Fight Epidemics: Latest Ideas from TEDMED

Digital-Diversity-BannerAt a time where emerging and rapidly spreading infections such as the Ebola and Zika viruses have been dominating conversations in global health, this is a defining moment for innovators – and new and exciting thinking in healthcare is always the hallmark of the annual TEDMED event. In this installment of Digital Diversity, Layla McCay – a member of our Media and Research Team – shares her thoughts on the recent TEDMED event in Palm Springs which showcased an intriguingly diverse range of approaches with a common aim: to halt the spread of epidemics.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Layla McCay

Tracking infections: A match made in data heaven. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Jake Porway calls himself a ‘matchmaker’ for NGOs (who don’t know how to fully leverage their data) and data scientists (who volunteer their time to co-create innovation). Porway set up his organization, Datakind, in 2012 after a hackathon went viral and he found that vast numbers of data scientists were ready to contribute their skills for good. There are currently over 12,000 of them – creating endless opportunities, particularly in areas like public health where markets cannot reliably unlock much-needed progress using data science.

Datakind has already undertaken 165 data-based projects to help NGOs achieve faster, cheaper, bigger and better results – and more inspiring ideas are in development. Porway’s team is currently working on harnessing data from satellite imagery to systematically track the physical locations of communicable diseases like influenza and ebola. They aim to use data science to predict the speed and direction of infection spread, so that villages and towns can be alerted when the disease is likely to approach and take steps to halt infections in their tracks.

Jake Porway. Credit: TEDMED

Identifying obscure infections: The answer is in the DNA (or RNA). When people present themselves to healthcare workers with an unusual infection, it can be challenging to make an accurate diagnosis. That’s because the traditional way to identify an infection is for a clinician to first suspect the culprit, then use laboratory medicine to confirm their suspicions. This system relies is prone to missing the diagnosis, delivering false positive results, and creating substantial delays while narrowing down the most likely causes. During this time patients’ conditions may deteriorate – and the infection may spread.

But what happens when the infection is so rare or unexpected that nobody thinks to look for it in the first place? Charles Chiu, Associate Professor of Laboratory Medicine at the University of California San Francisco believes he has a solution: the Min-ion nanopore sequencer. This hand-held device can be used in any laboratory in the world to diagnose infections using a more novel approach: rather than testing for specific causes of infection, this device looks for all of them. It works by analyzing the origin of all the genetic material in a sample. If that sample is a patient’s blood test, for instance, the device will identify most of the genetic material as human. But if infectious organisms like bacteria or viruses are present, no matter how obscure or unexpected they may be the sequencer identifies their genetic material too, and reports their presence. The process can be completed in just three hours and means the ability to identify rare diseases and emerging infections rapidly and efficiently, even in remote settings, before they have a chance to spread. This advance in precision medicine may have an exciting impact on surveillance, early identification and control of outbreaks.

Charles Chiu holding the Min-ion device. Credit: Layla McCay
Charles Chiu holding the Min-ion device. Credit: Layla McCay

Infections in your hands: 3D visualization of vaccine opportunities. In the throes of a known infection outbreak there is often a scramble to develop an effective vaccine. This is a complex challenge, but the NIH 3D Print Exchange have a new tool to help expedite the process: a database of minutely detailed biological models ready for printing on a 3D printer anywhere in the world. The Print Exchange project manager, Meghan Coakley from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, described how printing large, accurate models of tiny bacteria and viruses can improve visualization and offer scientists the insight needed to solve problems such as creating vaccines.

For example, by examining a 3D-printed influenza virus, researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases spotted a previously unseen ‘groove’ where they could target a universal flu vaccine, leading to a breakthrough in that research. The 3D Print Exchange can be used to print models of cells, bacteria, parts of anatomy and customized laboratory equipment. They have, for example, a growing collection of ebola models.

Meghan Coakley. Credit: TEDMED
Meghan Coakley. Credit: TEDMED

Halting the spread of infections: Color the bleach. Digital innovation has much to offer in a disease outbreak, but sometimes an analogue solution is needed to hit the spot. Kevin Tyan was an undergraduate student at Columbia University when he and his friends Jason Kang and Katherine Jin entered the university’s design challenge in response to the Ebola outbreak. Recognizing that people were becoming infected with Ebola virus due to problems with decontamination of protective clothing and equipment, they wondered how design could help. Since decontamination uses bleach and other transparent liquids, it can be difficult to see whether the bleach has been effectively applied and achieved full coverage, or whether a crucial spot has been missed. Their design response was simple: make the bleach visible.

In their dorm room, the students developed a powder that, when added to any bleach, creates a vibrant color. This makes it visually obvious if the bleach has missed a spot, and furthermore, the color remains for the duration of time needed to kill infectious organisms: when the bleach reverts to its original transparent color, users can be reassured that the item has been decontaminated and is safe to touch. The innovation won the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge and an array of other prizes and is already in use. Plus, the three students found themselves with an exciting health organization, Kinnos, to run upon graduation.

Kevin Tyan. Credit: TEDMED
Kevin Tyan. Credit: TEDMED

TEDMED reminds us that not all health innovations have to be big and shiny. Sometimes it’s the simplest of solutions that have the greatest impact, and sometimes that solution can be a new way of seeing, or analysing, something.

Layla McCayLayla McCay is a medical doctor and global health specialist, with a special interest in global health technology and innovation. She has worked across health policy sectors, from the World Health Organization and the World Bank to International NGOs and the British Government. She teaches international health at Georgetown University. You can find her on Twitter @LaylaMcCay

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, author, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja

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Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.