Local scientist-and-engineer duo pioneers new technology to fight TB

IBM engineer Toby Kurien and research scientist Darlington Mapiye have developed a device that will help officials track TB patients with the hope of improving access to treatment

The device is an electronic tag that collects information about TB patients, including their locations, which will give health officials a greater understanding of how the disease spreads and where treatment is required.

“We had to look at what we could do to collect data about patients and how we can track infection,” Kurien said in a Fin24 report.

“The solution was to create a cheap sensor that could track when someone who has the disease comes into contact with a person who is not infected.”

The device was developed in the Maker Lab at IBM’s second Research Lab on the continent, located at the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

“With the kind of data that is collected by the tags we are able to optimise what strategies are put in place and better understand how people come into contact with one another to contract the disease,” Mapiya said, adding that the data is then saved on a cloud server where it can be analysed to determine the type of treatment required by patients.

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The innovation is still in the research phase with trials expected to resume in Joburg soon, followed by trials to be conducted in Kenya.

The plan is to distribute the device among TB patients as well as those who don’t have the disease.

TB ambassador Gerry Elsdon says that while the device is still in its infancy, the development is encouraging.

“This device would be of great use to the TB patient because one of the difficulties is to understand who the patient is, where the patient is located, whether they’re still in the same area or whether they migrate for example,” she said.

“On the surface it’s truly exciting that we’re beginning to consider how we can track patient behaviour but also where the disease is more prevalent. We track this information with the world bank on [an] annual basis to be able to refine this type of info and understand where our TB patients are, where our multi-drug resistant (MDR) TB patients are. MDR TB can be fatal for the patient but it’s easily transferable to others, so understanding where they are and how we can get to them will be a plus for the entire country.”

Additional reporting by Fin24