UCLA Engineering has been awarded  a $100,000 Grand Challenges Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for innovative global health research based on an idea proposed by Peter Lillehoj, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering. The goal of the foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations initiative is to help scientists around the world explore bold and unproven ways to improve health in developing countries.

Lillehoj and his advisor, Professor Chih Ming Ho, will be developing a disposable malaria biosensor based on the SIM card platform. A SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card is a portable memory chip used in many of today’s cell phones. “Peter’s idea is truely innovative and has the potential to be applied to detect a wide class of diseases,” said Ho.

Malaria is one of the most deadly infectious diseases in the world, causing one to three million deaths annually, mostly in children under the age of five.

“While current molecular and antibody based tests are able to provide fast results without the need for trained technicians, these procedures are not cost effective or accessible to developing countries and do not provide quantitative measurements,” said Lillehoj.

Lillehoj’s SIM card-biosensor will enable malaria detection to be performed using a cell phone, making diagnostic testing more widely available in rural and decentralized settings.

“Essentially this project is aligned very closely to my research goals of developing low-cost and readily distributable diagnostics for improving global health care,” said Lillehoj.

By integrating a malaria biosensor onto a low cost, disposable SIM card, Lillehoj’s SIM-biosensor will enable malaria testing to be performed by anyone who owns a SIM-card enabled cell phone. Currently available to 80% of the global mobile market, the United Nations already predicts cell phone ownership to reach 5 billion this year, with most growth occurring in developing countries.

“These statistics show that a device like ours will greatly expand the availability of malaria testing in rural and decentralized settings,” said Lillehoj. “Additionally, utilization of the device will allow for simplified operation for untrained and illiterate users. We can also incorporate automated telecommunication of the results to centralized health care facilities for diagnostic and follow-up patient management.”

Lillehoj’s award was one of 65 grants announced by the Gates Foundation. The grants were provided to scientists, researchers, engineers in 16 countries on five continents.

“These are bold ideas from innovative thinkers, which is exactly what we need in global health research right now,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “I’m excited to see some of these daring projects develop into life-saving breakthroughs for those who need them the most.”