| The Gainesville Sun
A University of Florida professor earned national recognition for his smartphone-based, rapid saliva test he and his industry collaborators developed that can be used to diagnose COVID-19, along with malaria and anemia.
Rhoel Dinglasan, a professor of infectious diseases with UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and his team took second place in the National Institutes of Health’s Technology Accelerator Challenge.
The first-time competition encouraged design and development of innovative ways to assess two major vascular diseases, one of which had to include malaria, anemia or sickle cell disease. It also had to be low cost for consumers, accessible and use a mobile device or a portable attachment to the device.
Dinglasan, who is also director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, said he didn’t follow the contest rules completely only because at the time they were preparing for the contest, another disease, a pandemic, was dominating the news.
“There are three diseases that the NIH put out for the competition, and that was malaria, anemia and sickle cell,” he said. “This was around March and April, and we were all experiencing COVID-19. There wasn’t, at that time, a country-wide shift toward research investment into COVID-19.”
He decided to take the gamble by making a COVID-19 detecting test after Miami became one of the nation’s epicenters for the virus.
“The original spirit of the challenge was for malaria, anemia and sickle cell disease,” he said. “When we go out to work in these different countries, we need to differentiate when a person comes in, we need to know if it is COVID-19, malaria or anemia. Without that ability, how would we know if we should send this person home to quarantine because we think he has COVID-19? What if it is malaria? You need to give that child or adult anti-malaira drugs or they will die. We took the gamble, and maybe that is what cost us first place. We are really happy with second place.”
In placing second, Dinglasan and his collaborators won $200,000. But even more important, the device will get a look from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supported the challenge, and reviewed the winners and honorable mentions selected by NIH for potential follow-up funding of up to $500,000.
“We are hoping the Gates Foundation will support us,” Dinglasan said. “We haven’t heard yet from them. We have our fingers crossed. We could have stuck to the rules or pushed the technology forward. I would rather do the right thing and get second place.”
Dinglasan said their prize money is good enough to make a prototype, but not enough to make the gadget in bulk.
He has worked with Luminostics, a start-up company based in California, which became interested in Dinglasan’s device after seeing a paper in Science Translational Medicine in which his team reported on its saliva-based rapid diagnostic test for malaria.
Dinglasan said his device could have results in 30 minutes, but his goal is to have it in 15.
“The $200,000 is not enough to make enough to be in your hands,” he said. “That’s where the uncertainty is right now. We weren’t waiting for the results of this contest. Whether we won or lost, what we were trying to do was too good not to see what else we could do. We know all the components will work. We may make enough to do local tests, possibly. Our goal is to see how many we can make with a smaller budget.”