Press release | 15.6.2017
Venice/Munich, 15 June 2017 - Malaria threatens half of the world's population, and claims more than 600 000 lives a year, with only about 10% of cases ever being properly diagnosed. But its days as a "silent killer" may be numbered, thanks to the first automated blood test for malaria developed by Dutch haematologist Jan van den Boogaart (57) and Austrian biochemist Oliver Hayden (45). For their achievement, the European Patent Office (EPO) honoured the team with the 2017 European Inventor Award in the "Industry" category, one of five award categories, at a ceremony held today in Venice.
"The team's automated testing of malaria could tilt the scales in the struggle against this deadly disease," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli. "Their invention also highlights the benefits of looking at a problem from a completely different angle, and combining different fields such as medicine and information technology."
The award ceremony at the Arsenale di Venezia was attended by some 600 guests from the areas of politics, business, intellectual property, science and academia, and opened by the EPO President together with Carlo Calenda, Italy's Minister of Economic Development.
The award, now in its 12th year, is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to social development, technological progress and economic growth. The winners were chosen by an independent international jury from a pool of more than 450 individuals and teams of inventors put forward for this year's award.
Patented in 2011, van den Boogaart and Hayden's invention, could change the situation in malaria "hot spots", in particular in Africa. Nearly 86% of infections occur there and the economic burden on countries is estimated at around EUR 11 billion per year. Fast and accurate diagnosis is key to tackling the disease. While scientists had already identified the cause of malaria in the 19th century - parasites of the genus Plasmodium, spread by mosquito bites - finding these infectious organisms in blood samples remained a cumbersome and costly process. Here, van den Boogaart, a researcher at Siemens Healthineers, took a totally different approach: "Instead of trying to detect the malaria-causing parasite in the blood, I focused on the destructive effects of the disease in blood cells." Some of these effects include changes to the shape and density of red blood cells, lowering of platelet counts, and changes to the levels of oxygen-bearing haemoglobin (which gives blood its red colour). Together with his colleague, Oliver Hayden, van den Boogaart statistically analysed thousands of blood profiles of malaria patients for common patterns. After a year, the two had isolated a set of 30 parameters indicating the presence of the disease - malaria's "data fingerprint". They then collaborated with a team of researchers to write a computer algorithm to "teach" this data fingerprint to a Siemens blood-testing device, which is already in use at more than 3 000 clinics worldwide. Loaded with the inventors' algorithm it becomes the world's first automated malaria detector. "With this method, we can now automatically diagnose malaria with a sensitivity of more than 97%," says Hayden.
Having obtained bachelor's degrees in microbiology and clinical chemistry from H.B.O. Eindhoven, van den Boogaart serves as DX Product Manager at Siemens Healthineers in The Hague. Hayden recently moved on from his position as Head of In-Vitro Diagnostics & Bioscience Germany at Siemens Healthineers in Erlangen, to take on the role of Heinz-Nixdorf-Chair for Biomedical Electronics at the Technical University of Munich. He received his PhD in biochemistry at the University of Vienna and discovered data-driven analytics during postdoctoral research at Harvard University.
The team's "data fingerprint" method could unmask other "silent killers". "We can now detect life-threatening diseases with a standard instrument, without the need for special equipment or elaborate tests," says van den Boogaart, who is currently fine-tuning algorithms for sickle cell anaemia and acute promyelocyte leukaemia (APL). "If you could read all the data hidden in the blood, you could almost see what's going on inside the body," he says.
Note to editors: availability of AV and photo materials on 15 June 2017
Director External Communication