Seven breakthroughs that will transform global health

Major breakthroughs experts say could beat disease and transform health of world's poorest people

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 7:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 7:46am

Which major breakthroughs in technology have had a transformative effect on the lives of the world's poorest? Vaccines for polio and other serious diseases; HIV anti-retrovirals; mosquito bed-nets with powerful insecticide infused into its fabric. All have transformed lives by dramatically reducing disease.

What are the next breakthroughs around the corner?

Two years ago, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab's Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies launched a study to identify the 50 most important technology breakthroughs required for sustainable global development so that all of us who work in the technology-for-development field can put our collective efforts towards them.

Working with more than 1,000 experts, we have analysed where new technologies can make a game-changing difference in the fields of global health, food security and agriculture, education, human rights, the digital divide, access to water, gender equity, access to electricity and resilience against climate change.

Focusing on global health, the seven most important breakthroughs we have identified are:

1. HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) vaccines

Collectively, HIV/Aids, malaria and TB kill almost four million people a year and represent a significant disease burden for low-income populations in sub- Saharan Africa and South Asia. Effective vaccines for these diseases do not exist due to the complexity of the pathogens causing them, and a lack of understanding of the mechanisms through which our immune systems protect against these diseases.

2. Short-course TB treatments

Currently, treating drug-sensitive TB with a cocktail of antibiotics takes more than six months. As a result, patients often stop treatment prematurely, leading to treatment failure and causing drug resistance. An effective short-course drug would significantly reduce the spread of TB.

3. Microbicides to protect women against HIV/Aids and human papillomavirus (HPV)

Women often struggle to get their male sexual partners to use condoms. Effective vaginal or rectal microbicides can be a viable and discreet alternative to condoms for controlling the spread of HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases, such as HPV which causes cervical cancer.

4. A drug that completely cures malaria

Existing drugs for treating malaria do not completely destroy the malarial parasite from the patient's body, and lead to an asymptomatic reservoir among patients who have been treated successfully. These individuals can then transmit the disease to others if bitten by mosquitoes capable of carrying the parasite. A complete cure, which eliminates all malaria parasites in the patient's body, would be pivotal.

5. A tool to diagnose several diseases

Promising advances have been made on a number of diagnostic technologies, such as dipstick-type immunoassays and nucleic acid tests . However, it is important that these various tests are integrated into a single tool so that patients can get accurate, fast results with a single visit.

6. Temperature-change-safe vaccines

Vaccines are highly temperature-sensitive. A lack of electricity and refrigeration means that many vaccines are damaged before they reach the children they are intended to protect. Thermostable vaccines can address this.

7. Solar-powered devices for maternal, child and primary health care

Currently, building a reasonably equipped clinic costs more than US$100,000. A suite of the key 10 to 15 devices, designed for ease of installation and use - a "clinic-in-a-box" - costing under US$10,000 would save lives in rural areas.

Shashi Buluswar is executive director at the Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

The Guardian