It’s often said that technology will enable science to eliminate some of the world’s most debilitating diseases. Big data and supercomputing can provide useful information to those on the front lines of research seeking to eliminate malaria, tuberculosis, polio and HIV around the world.
But sometimes it’s not always that complicated and an internet search or a new application for a gaming software can provide the desired results. For instance, a simple internet search brought Patrick Lammie, the chief scientist for the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center at the Decatur-based Task Force for Global Health to the attention of Brandon Dixon, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Dr. Dixon earned his doctorate at Texas A&M University where he developed an imaging system for measuring the flow of lymph fluid through the body and the amount of mechanical stress that can be placed on lymphatic vessels, which play a critical role in the human body’s immune system. The lymphatic system helps rid the body of toxins and other unwanted materials.
He joined Georgia Tech after serving as a post-doc at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Don’t get the impression, however, that all he was doing was looking at lymph nodes through a microscope. In 2013, he received a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health to apply a “technology approach” to the study of lymphatic diseases.
Among the most disfiguring conditions a nonfunctioning lymphatic system can produce is lymphedema, a chronic condition that occurs at particularly high rates in women who are breast cancer survivors and results in a buildup of painful fat and swelling in the limbs.
According to medical research, lymphatic diseases affect more Americans than HIV, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy combined. Unlike these other diseases lymphedema can be reversed if spotted early. While breast cancer related lymphedema has received recent attention within the US, the most egregious cases of lymphedema are known as elephantiasis, which is caused by parasitic worms and inflicts more than a 100 million people around the world.
Aware of the extent of the disease, Dr. Dixon and Mike Weiler, a biomedical engineer working in Dr. Dixon’s lab, concentrated on figuring out how to improve the detection and monitoring of the disease.
They teamed up with four students from Georgia Tech and Emory University’s College of Law as part of the groundbreaking Technology Innovation: Generating Economic Results (TI:GER®) program.
The cross-institutional program prepares students from different disciplines to develop new technologies and deliver innovative products to the marketplace.
The team spent two years exploring with doctors and clinicians how a new technology that they developed might improve patient care. Dr. Dixon and Dr. Weiler then participated in the National Science Foundation’s I-CORPS program that provides guidance to engineers and scientists seeking to commercialize research and ultimately arrived at their technological solution — a 3-D imaging camera with the capability of measuring the circumference and volume of limbs — an innovation stemming from video game software.
The initial technological adaptation involved a Microsoft X-Box Kinect camera. While the X-box was first developed by Microsoft in 2001 to play online games with personal computers, later models included the Kinect motion control system.
Funded by a grant from the Georgia Research Alliance, the Georgia Tech team applied the commercially available 3-D imaging capability of the Kinect camera to scan 150 people with lymphedema.
That innovation led to the founding of LymphaTech Inc., and follow-on funding from the Georgia Research Alliance that seeds and shapes startup companies emerging from the university system’s research facilities to further develop the technology at Georgia Tech.
The benefit of the procedure also was tested by a medical team from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., and a clinic in Sri Lanka. In the past, the progress of lymphedema was measured either by tape of the circumferences near the knees, feet and ankles or by water displacement.
Neither of the traditional processes have proved to be either reliable or efficient. The tape measure process is generally unreliable in assessing leg volume because of uneven skin surfaces caused by swelling. The water displacement method involves submerging a limb in a water tank and then measuring how much water is displaced. Given the condition of legs affected by elephantiasis the procedure can be impractical.
The tests revealed that the LymphaTech device, essentially user-friendly customized software that controls an infrared sensor mounted on an iPad, Dr. Dixon told Global Atlanta, provides measurements of leg volume and limb circumference at multiple points that are just as accurate, with less variability, as those obtained by the alternative methods.
An additional benefit, he said, is that the average time required for scanner measurements was far less than the tape measure and water displacement methods — 2.2 minutes versus 7.5 minutes and 17.4 minutes.
With the device and the procedure validated, the next step was to distribute it worldwide. Because of its portability, its use seemed ideal in remote and poorly equipped locations. It also appeared to be a useful tool for people suffering from lymphedema who want to monitor their medications.
Thanks to Dr. Dixon’s search on the internet, here’s where Dr. Lammie becomes involved. As the chief scientist for The Task Force for Global Health’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center, he was in the perfect position to encourage the device’s roll out in countries where the disease exists.
With an extensive background as a senior staff scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at The Task Force he provides technical and strategic oversight to projects dedicated to the global elimination of lymphatic related and other neglected tropical diseases (NTD). He also serves on the World Health Organization’s NTD Monitoring and Evaluation Working Group.
The timing for the roll outs also is appropriate since in 2017 the World Health Organization endorsed a mass treatment strategy using a triple-drug combination to tackle the disease worldwide. The LymphaTech device can be of great benefit in remote areas by individual day-to-day monitoring to determine the progress of the drugs.
Although the disease is expected to be eliminated by 2025, there still are millions of outstanding cases. Yet, the LymphaTech team asked themselves, if its role in helping diagnose lymphatic filariasis around the world was enough to motivate the future profitability of their startup LymphaTech.
Dr. Dixon seems confident that the company will succeed financially by pointing to the device’s utility for cancer patients who have had lymph nodes removed through surgery or damaged by radiation and chemotherapy hindering the body’s ability to drain fluid. He said that a significant percentage of all people with breast cancer suffer from this development as do the majority of patients with neck cancer.
While no cure exists for lymphedema, current physical therapy treatment approaches can hold it in check and the device is a useful tool in managing the disease. Additionally, if the disease is detected early enough, and the appropriate manual therapy is applied, the disease could be reversible. LymphaTech’s founders agree with Dr. Dixon’s observation that the company’s financial success will be based on serving this market while also helping to rid the world of elephantiasis.