Vanderbilt University Team Develops 3D Printed Device to Diagnose and Fight Malaria in Zambia

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imageWhile we are fighting a number of issues worldwide, health and otherwise, it can be hard to decide what’s at the top of the priority list. Some very brave and dedicated individuals have decided that for themselves though — and thank goodness they have done so.

With the aid of a new 3D printing device, both Dr. Joseph Conrad, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Priscilla Lumano-Mulenga, Zambian scientist and Research Fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Institute of Global Health, hope to make a deep impact on the devastation malaria is causing in Zambia and other areas. They have teamed up to work on the project, and it has not been without sacrifice, as Dr. Lumano-Mulenga has had to leave her husband and children for long periods of time in her dedication to preventing death from malaria in Zambia.

“It was not an easy decision to leave a husband and three children,” said Dr. Lumano-Mulenga. “What inspired me is I want to see Zambia free of malaria.”

The statistics regarding death attributed to malaria should give anyone the chills. Children are more vulnerable; over 1,300 die from malaria every day. As Vanderbilt University and their researchers and scientists in the field work to bring attention to the issue of enormous fatalities caused by malaria, to really make the issue clear, they point out that the amount of deaths caused by malaria, 1,300 children per day, amounts to “the death toll of three World Trade Center attacks a week.” In stark contrast, only about 1,500 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the US each year. The CDC states that while it is a serious disease that can cause death, that usually can be prevented with early detection and prescription drugs.

For Dr. Lumano-Mulenga, this is such a dire issue that she made the difficult choice to endure separation from husband and kids to work with Vanderbilt and go into the field to work with Zambian medical teams fighting the disease with 3D printers in the field which will produce something completely new: a comprehensive, reliable 3D printed malaria diagnostic kit and process that helps to improve existing tests, and helps to provide a clearer, faster result. Not only will this kit work for malaria, but it may prove to be technology that can be used for a number of other diseases requiring diagnostics.conrad_j_web

Dr. Conrad spent years working in Zambia as a Peace Corps volunteer, so this is a project close to his heart and conveys that it feels like “coming full circle” in being able to make a significant difference there. The 3D printed device is so simple that it could allow users to get results in minutes, before they even show symptoms, which is important because they can get treatment earlier, which is very important. The devices work with existing tests that don’t require electricity, clean water, or advanced technical training.

“We think 3D printing in the lower resource environment is very unique,” said Dr. Conrad. “We could actually prototype and design devices here in our labs in Vanderbilt and then transfer those design files over e-mail to our collaborators in Zambia and they could print them out and the very next day go test those field designs.”

Dr. Conrad has been to Zambia just recently to work on setting up a 3D printer in the field, at the Macha Research Institute, which is in an extremely isolated area. Dr. Lumano-Mulenga points out that the important element in their plan, along with the 3D printer which can produce the device for better testing in isolated areas, is that they will go into the Zambian communities and supply testing, rather than waiting for villagers to make their way to medical facilities.

Malaria is a disease caused by four different mosqitoes: Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae. These mosquitoes feed on humans, causing the transmission of malaria, which leads to pretty miserable symptoms that are generally associated with the flu. Malaria is not contagious from human to human contact, except in pregnant mothers or those sharing needles. It can also be spread during blood transfusion since it is a disease that affects the red blood cells.

printer-thumbnail-new-585x329This is a situation where we are talking about an enormous population of people, mainly children, dying needlessly every day, month, and year. With the sustainability offered in the field through 3D printing, isolated communities can make their own devices to better the tests. This is a huge step, along with many others that 3D printing is behind in terms of helping poverty-stricken developing countries, in not just improving quality of lives, but helping toward saving many.

Are you surprised by the shocking statistics regarding malaria in Zambia? What do you think the impact of 3D printing will be in helping developing countries to develop more sustainability? Tell us your thoughts in the 3D Printed Device to Fight Malaria in Zambia forum over at

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