Medical science done right

Things are changing. And here's some evidence. This is a great story (hat tip Boingboing). It's about a new test for African sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), a disease carried by the tse-tse fly that afflicts an estimated 66 million people in 36 countries. Not a nice disease:

At first, the main clinical signs of human trypanosomiasis are high fever, weakness and headache, joint pains and pruritus (itching). Gradually, the immune defence mechanisms and the patient's resistance are exhausted. As the parasite develops in the lymph and blood of the patient, the initial symptoms become more pronounced and other manifestations such as anaemia, cardiovascular and endocrine disorders, abortion, oedema and kidney disorders appear.

In advanced stages of disease, the parasite invades the central nervous system. The patient's behaviour changes; they can no longer concentrate and become indifferent to their environment. Sudden and unpredictable mood changes become increasingly frequent, giving rise to lethargy with bouts of aggressiveness. Patients are overcome by such extreme torpor that eating, speaking, walking or even opening the eyes call for an unsurmountable effort. At night they suffer insomnia and during the day are exhausted by periods of sleep-like unconsciousness. Finally, patients fall into a deep coma and die. (Tulane, course notes)

What's the "great story"? This:

Australian scientists have developed a blood test for African sleeping sickness that does not require the fancy equipment found in upscale medical labs. Even better, they made the details of their work available for free by publishing a paper in the Feb. 6 issue of PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, which operates under a Creative Commons license.

Zablon Njiru and Andrew Thompson of Murdoch University led a team that developed the elegantly simple way to check for trypanosomes -- protozoan parasites that are sometimes carried by tsetse flies.

To catch an infection in the earliest stages, when it is most treatable, technicians must look for a very small number of parasites in a sea of body fluids. That is not an easy thing to do, but there is a trick to make it easier: By mixing the liquid sample with a cocktail of molecules that can copy trypanosome DNA, they can make the serum resistance associated gene, a signpost of the disease, stand out -- transforming each test into a manageable task.

Instead of using the polymerase chain reaction, which amplifies the microbe DNA with the aid of an expensive instrument called a thermocycler, the researchers employed another gene multiplying technique called loop-mediated isothermal amplification. It requires little more than a warm water bath and a few chemicals. After that procedure, which takes less than a half hour, the scientists can simply add some SYBR green dye and watch the brew change color if it contains a boatload of duplicated genetic material from the pathogen. (Wired News)

Here's what the test looks like:


In essence, these scientists have put this simple test into the public domain instead of patenting it to make money off of it. That's what medical scientists are supposed to do. And they did it. Kudos to Zablon Njiru and Andrew Thompson of Murdoch University.

Here's the full citation in PLoS Neglected Diseases:

Njiru ZK, Mikosza ASJ, Armstrong T, Enyaru JC, Ndung'u JM, et al. (2008) Loop-Mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) Method for Rapid Detection of Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense. PLoS Negl. Trop. Dis. 2(2): e147.

You can find it here.


More like this

I'd be surprised if it wasn't patented anyway.

If I invented something useful that I wanted the world to use for free I'd patent it. You just don't bother to enforce the patent.

It stops some company who didn't invent the thing from locking it up in a patent of their own.

Regardless in Australian universities you are strongly encouraged/contractually required to patent whatever you can manage. It's the only way the universities can survive as the government won't fund them to world class level and the country doesn't have the philanthropic tradition that the USA has.

Someone please recommend them for some awards! Their funders as well.

Will a similar test work for other trypanosomal diseases? How about malaria? Others?

By phytosleuth (not verified) on 05 Mar 2008 #permalink

Nat, Yes. Holding a patent but letting others use it as long as their goal is same as yours.

See Eco-Patent Commons…

Based on the idea that "Sharing environmental patents can help others become more eco-efficient and operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner enabling technology innovation to meet social innovation."

By phytosleuth (not verified) on 05 Mar 2008 #permalink

Actually, LAMP for Trypansoma spp. diagnosis was first published in JCM in 2003. The PLOS NTD article is an assay specific for rhodesiense.

While the assay isn't patented, and it helps that there is no potential for any financial gains from it, the LAMP technique is owned by a Japanese chemical company, Eiken ( However, the Foundation of Innovative New Diagnostics ( which is leading the development effort has an agreement with Eiken to waive any royalties (I think).

Some of the reagents used in this type of assay are somewhat expensive. But in further news on this method, a recent paper in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology describes the use of Propidium Iodide as a replacement for the much more expensive Syber Green used in the above article. See:

By Mike Herron (not verified) on 04 Aug 2008 #permalink