IfM Insights
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IfM Insights

New manufacturing approaches to affordable healthcare

IfM research is exploring how important diagnostics and medical devices can be made more accessible to low- and middle-income countries.

By Jason Naselli

Manufacturing healthcare products like sensors and sensitive diagnostic tests can be complicated and expensive, making them less accessible to health systems with fewer resources.

Dr Ronan Daly’s team in the Fluids in Advanced Manufacturing group at the IfM have teamed up with Professor Lisa Hall in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology to explore ways to make tests more affordable and accessible. They are looking at ways to reduce the complexity of the materials used and how the devices are manufactured, as well as how to manufacture products closer to users, with rapid upscaling and downscaling driven by need.

‘Our approach is to look at these products and work with partners in different locations to consider local manufacturing capabilities and materials, and how the manufacturing processes can be adapted to work with available, greener products. By making these devices close to the user, for example, diagnostics like lateral flow tests, and then only needing to distribute locally, we can make them less expensive and thus available to a wider range of people and health systems,’ explains Ronan.

One example is biosensors. Normally, these require many steps of biosynthesis or protein manufacture, the transferring and patterning of materials, and designing the process of cell signalling. Lisa’s team have built a capability to compress multiple steps into a single process, creating a multifunctional product that can be incorporated straight into a device for disease diagnostics.

‘From there, we’re working out how to use that process with an affordable technology,’ explains Ronan. ‘Is it with 3D printing, injection moulding or lamination? What are the simple steps to turn it into a device that is still as accurate and reliable as the earlier, more expensive version? So we’re not compromising on use or capability, but finding affordable ways of doing it.’

Lower-cost medical devices

Lisa’s team is leading a project where IfM are an integral part, working with the University of Santo Tomas and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines to examine how synthetic biology can help to create lower-cost medical devices.

‘Many medical devices work by using proteins that can detect the presence of a targeted disease. We’re working together looking at how we can use bacteria to create multifunctional proteins, in a process that does not use a lot of energy, is easy to carry out, and gives a product that not only detects a targeted disease but also has an embedded optical signal to let you know that it has been made correctly,’ says Ronan.

‘It is all produced in a simple vessel, where the proteins are expressed, and engineered with inbuilt colours to show that you have made it to the correct protein. It’s really a beautiful thing, and it tells us that it’s working.’

The team have been targeting the detection of malaria, dengue, leptospirosis and more recently COVID-19, looking at the sensor development and at economic models, to demonstrate a strong argument for investment.

‘We now are looking to take that technique and that approach and apply it to more things and more applications and turn them into real devices,’ says Ronan.

Affordability by adapting existing technologies

Another approach to making healthcare affordable is to identify existing technologies that can easily be changed to deliver a diagnostic or therapeutic effect. One possibility that the team are exploring is using touchscreens, found on widely available mobile phones, to do more diagnostic work.

‘One of the ways is making it manufacturable at the right place, and the other way we’re doing it is trying to find what equipment and tools already exist at these locations, that we can then use. And that was what led us to touchscreens,’ says Ronan.

‘The penetration into the market of touch screens in low- and middle-income countries is just phenomenal, and they’ve got built-in computational power. They’ve got communications. You can coordinate data and send it to whoever needs to interpret it.

‘We are at a very early stage of research for this technology and we are looking at the steps we need to take that would make this possible,’ explains Ronan. ‘This is an example of a potential affordable solution that would make these much more widely available.’

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The Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) is part of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. Our vision: manufacture a better world.

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