UWC alumnus make strides with TB device

A research scientist and an engineer have designed a simple tag that helps in better understanding how tuberculosis (TB) is spread and could soon be used to curb the spread of the disease in Africa.

The tag designers are Darlington Mapiye, University of the Western Cape (UWC) alumnus and IBM research scientist and Toby Kurien, an engineer at IBM’s Johannesburg laboratory.

Mapiye says although they all know the mechanisms by which TB is spread, they know much less about the pattern of movement by which the disease spreads.

Mapiye, a former resident of Brackenfell who now resides in Fourways, Johannesburg, completed his PhD at UWC’s South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) in 2016.

“I’m serious about efficient and effective TB prevention, and I feel as a UWC graduate that everything is possible. We are producing some of the top-notch graduates on the continent, and I’m proud to be one of them,” he says.

Mapiye says there is a stigma attached to people who have TB, and that the device was developed to de-stigmatise the disease as well as further understand, through the data it collects, what kind of treatment patients need.

“With the kind of information collected by the tags, we are able to optimise what strategies are put in place and better understand how people come into contact with one another to contract the disease,” he explains.

The device was developed in the Maker Lab at IBM’s second research lab in Africa, situated at the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

“The tracking device is a simple tag, useful for both the sick and the healthy,” Mapiye.

The device measures the proximity of TB patients, and the longer it is in operation and the more data it collects, the more useful it becomes and if it’s successful, the concept could probably be extended to other diseases.

Mapiye says the tag is designed to be comfortable and not to draw undue attention to the wearer.

“We are trying to make the device as invisible as possible by designing it as bracelets or watches. No two devices will look the same, meaning that even when people who are wearing the device come into contact with one another, they will not know whether the other is indeed wearing one,” he says.

His research partner, Kurien, adds that the device only tracks proximity to other devices, and does not include a GPS or recording mechanism, it’s a data collection tool, not a spying device.

Dr Junaid Gamieldien, acting director of the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI), is proud of his former student’s accomplishment – but not surprised.

Gamieldien says Mapiye came to them with a strong background in statistics, able to tackle his research topic exceptionally well, despite it being a fairly difficult area.

“He completed his Masters quickly, made a new finding, published it and truly shone here as a PhD student. He’s a quick learner and even when it is a new field, he is able to make rapid and impressive progress,” Gamieldien says.

While the project is still in the research phase, the team is hoping to conduct trials soon in Johannesburg and thereafter in Kenya, where IBM’s other African research lab is based.

When rolled out, the tag will be distributed only among those who voluntary accept its use, whether they have the disease or not.

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