NIH announces $1 million prize competition to target global disease diagnostics

Feb. 27, 2020

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched a $1 million Technology Accelerator Challenge to spur the design and development of non-invasive, handheld, digital technologies to detect, diagnose and guide therapies for diseases with high global and public health impact.

The challenge is focused on sickle cell disease, malaria and anemia and is led by NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is cooperating with NIH to help accelerate the transformation of design concepts into products for low-resource settings.

NIH will award up to $500,000 for a top finalist and smaller awards to approximately five semi-finalists. The Gates Foundation will separately review winners and honorable mentions and consider them for follow-on support. This may include a grant of up to $500,000 and/or consultations, partnerships for clinical data collection, software development, scale-up, and manufacturing.

“Bioengineers are pioneering the development of cutting-edge, cost-effective, mobile and point-of-care technologies,” said NIBIB Director Bruce Tromberg, Ph.D. “This challenge is an exciting way to engage and inspire our community to address an urgent health care need.”

While diagnostics currently exist for sickle cell disease, malaria and anemia, they can be challenging to deliver in low-resource settings, particularly at the population level, due to cost, invasiveness and the expertise required to administer the tests. The current challenge is designed to stimulate the development of a platform technology that could be used to rapidly screen large populations as well as provide physicians with a practical tool for optimizing therapy in individual patients.

“While this challenge is not constrained to any specific technology, the inspiration for it comes from the widespread availability of mobile phones and the potential for mobile phone-linked sensor technologies to non-invasively detect changes in the blood and blood vessels associated with these treatable diseases,” Tromberg said.

For low-resource settings, diagnostics would ideally be portable, self-contained, low-cost, adaptable to multiple diseases, and able to integrate information about the patient and the environment in interpreting the test result.

“New diagnostic tools could address a major burden of disease in low- and middle-income country settings,” said the Gates Foundation’s Dan Wattendorf, Director of Innovative Technology Solutions, Global Health.  “Handheld, low-cost tools can bring testing out of a laboratory and to the point of need. Digitally enabled tools can help provide objective guidance for those administering a test, reducing procedural errors and facilitating collection of more complete diagnostic information.” 

The challenge will address three blood disorders that exact an enormous toll on populations around the globe, including:

·        Sickle cell disease, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders arising from a single genetic mutation that can cause severe pain and potentially lead to premature death. The condition affects millions of people worldwide, most often those of African ancestry. About 300,000 infants each year have sickle cell disease, 75% of whom reside in sub-Saharan Africa. Without newborn screening programs and early diagnosis, 50-90% of children with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa die before age five.

·         Malaria, which is caused by a parasite that is spread to people through a bite from an infected mosquito. In 2018, approximately 228 million people contracted malaria, with the vast majority of those being in sub-Saharan Africa. The Gates Foundation is committed to implementing new surveillance tools linked to a digital infrastructure with the goal of eradicating malaria entirely.

·         Anemia, which affects roughly a third of the world's population and occurs when the body makes too few red blood cells, destroys too many red blood cells, or loses blood. The most common causes of anemia include iron and other nutritional deficiencies, hemoglobin abnormalities, and infectious diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and parasitic infections. Young children, pregnant women and all women of childbearing age are particularly prone to the effects of anemia.

The challenge will accept applications through June 2, 2020 at

NIH has the announcement.