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17 May, 2006 - 12:51 By Staff Reporter

Cambridge University spins out health firm

University of Cambridge scientist Dr Helen Lee has set-up Diagnostics for the Real World, a spin-out company based on healthcare diagnostic technologies developed at Cambridge.

The goal of the company is to improve health in resource-poor settings by developing badly needed diagnostic tests for neglected diseases.

Dr Lee’s university team has just developed the first inexpensive, sensitive and easy-to-use rapid test for trachoma, an eye infection that has led to more than one million women and children going blind.

The ‘sight-saving’ dipstick could have a dramatic impact on the treatment of the disease caused by chlamydia trachomatis bacteria.

It produces results in less than half an hour and can be used in remote areas by staff who have been trained on-the-spot and have access to only the most basic elements. The infection, which causes the eyelid to fold inward and the lashes to scar the cornea, can be cleared by a single dose of a drug called azithromycin.

In a trial involving over 600 Masai children living in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, the assay proved to be more than twice as effective in detecting trachoma than traditional analysis. It took just one hour to train local health workers to carry out the tests, which were then evaluated in a village ‘office’ without electricity or running water, using tables and chairs as makeshift lab benches.

The wafer-thin, 8cm long trachoma dipstick is an adaptation of the award-winning ‘FirstBurst’ diagnostic test to detect the sexually-transmitted form of chlamydia, which is highly contagious (resulting in more than 90m new cases every year) and can lead to infertility in women.

Both tests were developed with funding from the Wellcome Trust.

Claude-Edouard Michel, one of the leaders of the testing programme, who works with Dr Lee in Cambridge’s Diagnostics Development Unit, said: “We have shown this test can work in the most difficult circumstances without even the most basic of laboratory equipment.”

• Around 1.3 million women and young children have been blinded by trachoma, which is easily spread by the Bazaar fly or through lack of hygiene, and another 7 million in Africa and Asia suffer serious visual problems.

The World Health Organ-isation estimates that 84 million people in 55 countries need treatment, with 90 per cent of these cases occurring in the developing world.

The problem is exacerbated in Africa where there is just one ophthalmologist for every million people.

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