Creating Biomedical Technologies to Improve Health


Science Highlight: December 18, 2015

Point of Care Technologies: Must be Small, Fast, Accurate, Low-Cost. What’s so hard about that?

NIH and IEEE Co-Host Conference on the Future of Point-of-Care Research

More than 250 scientists, clinicians, and engineers convened in Rockville in early November to discuss current developments and future research challenges in the area of point-of-care (POC) technologies– be it at a bedside in a remote village or on a battlefield.  The meeting was co-hosted by NIH and the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Meeting planners in addition to the NIH and IEEE included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CVS Caremark, Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), and the Point of Care Research Network (POCTRN).

Point-of-care technologies that can be used at the location of the patient, encompass a broad range of diagnostic tests and treatment tools, some of which are already ubiquitous in our society. Primary care physicians use quick-Strep tests and other rapid result bacteria tests before prescribing antibiotics. Women have been using over-the-counter pregnancy tests for years, and diabetics prick their fingers to instantly monitor blood sugar levels.

Tiffani Lash speaking at the conference.

With the widespread use of smartphones and the advanced computing power they afford, a growing number of complex technologies are already being developed, from a solar-powered PCR machine that can detect HIV, to smart apps that can communicate patient information directly to a doctor many miles away. "The conference was designed to map out a research plan for the future by bringing stakeholders from various backgrounds in health care, government, academia, small business, large businesses, and non-profits together,” said, Tiffani Lash, Ph.D., Program Director of Sensors and Telehealth at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and conference co-chair. “The patient and clinician pair that spoke truly emphasized the need for POC technologies in the US today.”

The conference speakers included many investigators in the NIBIB-funded POCTRN, a group of three research centers located at Boston University, Johns Hopkins University, and Massachusetts General Hospital. They discussed the latest advances in POC research including rapid HIV testing, a microscope that can diagnose the beginning stages of cervical cancer, and a clinical trial in Baltimore where patients conduct at-home gonorrhea and chlamydia tests and mail in their sample to find out the results.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Ph.D., an investigator from Rice University, made clear the desperate and urgent need for more point of care diagnostics in Malawi, where the risk of a woman getting cervical cancer is 7.4%, the highest in the world, and 5.2% of women die from it. Pap smears, the traditional form of cervical cancer screening, cannot be conducted in rural areas since it requires a laboratory and trained technicians. Richards-Kortum described an interaction with a clinic director on a recent trip to the country.

“I asked him, ‘What can we develop that would help you combat this disease?’” Richards-Kortum said. “He pulled out a jar of liquid morphine and told me, ‘We have many women dying from cervical cancer so we leave them bottles of morphine. But at night, they cannot see very well in the dark and often make mistakes when pouring out their dosages. Do you think that you could make something that would make sure they get the proper dosage?’ It was very humbling,” Richards-Kortum said, “and shows the desperate need for better POC cervical cancer diagnosis.”

The conference also gave attendees the chance to discuss challenges the field is facing and how to best to gain patient and physician acceptance of new point of care devices. The challenges are not trivial—new devices must be inexpensive and small, fast but accurate, and require ease in sample acquisition and training people to use the device. In breakout sessions, attendees gathered in smaller groups to discuss how they are working to tackle such difficulties and form partnerships to further POC research.

“This was very much a working conference, where speakers and attendees will build high-value connections, strategic alliances and partnerships that will help create lifesaving new technologies  and make a massive impact in clinical care,” said Atam Dhawan, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Research and Distinguished Professor, NJIT and conference co-chair. “At the end of the conference, a task force was formed to develop a white paper on future strategic direction for POC technologies.”

After the breakout sessions Jim Gallarda, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation summed up what he felt was the takeaway from the conference. “What we came to realize from the multitude of stakeholder perspectives is that to move forward we can, and must, collectively co-create the future,” said Gallarda. “This will happen when all of us, from diagnostics innovators to healthcare professionals in both developed and developing countries, work together to respond with effective POC solutions capable of addressing global healthcare needs.”

Conference participants continue working diligently to get these technologies from the lab bench to the clinic, making POC diagnostic testing a reality across the US and the world.

PDF iconConference Program