By Andi Kezh, intern
The World Health Organization estimates that about 25% of the world’s population is infected with soil-transmitted helminths (STH), a group of intestinal worms transmitted through contaminated soil. STH are most commonly found in tropical climates in countries with poor access to water, hygiene, and sanitation, and can cause malnutrition and physical impairment, with school-aged children often carrying the largest burden of infection.
A group of undergraduate students at Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Engineering have devised a new prototype to aid in STH diagnostics as part of their senior capstone project.
“Working on this project to combat STH has been an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience,” said Asher Altman, Georgia Tech biomedical engineering student.
“During our device’s development, I have learned more about the challenges that lab technicians face in the field, and the importance of developing a sustainable and affordable solution to STH spread.”
STH detection remains an obstacle, as the current method, called the Kato-Katz technique, requires technicians to examine a stool sample on a microscope slide in order to look for STH eggs. Preparation of the slides is time-consuming and requires careful attention to spread the sample properly to allow for the detection of the eggs.
The Ga Tech students’ prototype, called the “Stool Stomper,” is a portable, spring-resisted device that shapes stool samples on the microscope slide with consistent diameter and thickness. The device reduces the time to prepare a sample slide by 8.5% compared to the manual method. Their research found a 60% greater consistency in STH egg samples when technicians used the device.
The partnership with Georgia Tech was facilitated by the fact that the university is just six miles from The Task Force’s headquarters in Atlanta.
“As a top-tier research university right in our backyard, it was an obvious interdisciplinary approach to leverage Georgia Tech’s technical expertise of the biomedical engineering students to look into the global challenges with diagnostics for intestinal worms,” said Mariana Stephens, Deputy Director of The Task Force’s Children Without Worms (CWW) program. CWW works closely with pharmaceutical donors, non-governmental organizations, national implementing partners, and private-public coalitions to build the capacity of national STH programs and advocate for evidence-based approaches to control intestinal worm infections.
With funding from the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Georgia Tech, CWW coordinated a research trip to Tanzania for the students to test the Stool Stomper prototype in a country where STH remains a public health problem. The three students joined Dr. Rudolph Gleason (Georgia Tech faculty), and Dr. Kristin Sullivan ( infectious disease epidemiologist and CWW Public Health Advisor) to work alongside young lab technicians and seasoned Tanzanian experts.
“Being able to work with local lab technicians and talk to operators experienced in the Kato-Katz protocol revealed areas that our device needed to improve and gave tangible results as to our device’s efficacy,” said Altman. “In all, the trip to Tanzania showed that effectively reducing the spread of diseases like STH is dependent on designing a solution that is simple to maintain and operate.”
“Getting to work along with the lab technicians who have years of experience with using the Kato-Katz technique gave us the opportunity to test our device and see the improvements needed to be made because of the feedback we got from the intended users of the Stool Stool Stomper,” said Victoria Brown, Georgia Tech biomedical engineering student. “During this trip, I faced obstacles and overcame them by creating new and exciting ideas and fixing the problems on the fly to better our device.”
The experience may have lasting benefits for the students who worked on the prototype, who gained an opportunity for networking as well as key technical experience intersecting their studies in bioengineering with public health.
As nearly 25% of the world’s population remains at risk for infection of STH, CWW’s partnership highlights the importance of engaging young individuals in disease detection.
“Youth possess the potential to significantly enhance neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) diagnostics due to their enthusiasm and innovative thinking,” said Stephens of CWW. “By engaging these young minds in research and development, we can foster a new generation of scientists dedicated to addressing global health challenges and improving diagnostic methodologies for NTDs.”
Team counting eggs in stools and fixing microscope. Left to Right– Derick Jaffu, Asher Altman, Victoria Brown, Michael Mazoya, Yusuf Makama, Betty Nabatte. Photo by K. Sullivan
The students entered the Stool Stomper prototype into the Rice 360 Global Health Technology Challenge, a selective competition at Rice University featuring student teams across international universities who present low-cost technologies to address global health challenges in resource-limited settings and were semifinalists.