Stanford Students Design a Device to Detect Early-Stage River Blindness

Stanford Students Design a Device to Detect Early-Stage River Blindness

Undergraduates could help save the sight of millions in Central Africa.

A team of undergraduate bioengineering students from the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign has developed a device that could save the sight of millions of people in rural Central Africa. Their target is onchocerciasis, or river blindness, a parasitic disease that’s endemic to that area and causes severe itching, skin lesions and debilitating vision loss. It’s spread by infected blackflies found near fast-moving water in tropical climates. When they bite, they transmit larvae that make their way into the skin and eyes causing intense itching, disfiguring skin nodules and eye lesions.

The students — Claire Lamadrid, Clay Ellington, Julia Schaepe, Kelsie Wysong, and Marissa MacAvoy — came together in a course called Bioengineering Senior Capstone Design, where students work in teams to identify real problems in health care and develop novel, technology-based solutions.

Stanford Medicine clinicians advise the students, along with engineering faculty, teaching assistants and industry experts. One of the team’s mentors was Manu Prakash, PhD, an associate professor of bioengineering, whose research interests include inventing low-cost science tools to democratize global access to science.

Onchocerciasis is one of the most common causes of infectious blindness in the world; an estimated 20 million people have the disease and another 125 million live in at-risk areas.

The disease is usually diagnosed by taking skin snips from six different areas of the body and looking at them under a microscope. The test is painful and invasive test, and it has a high false negative rate, especially if the infection is in its early stages.

The students are developing a test that uses a low-cost microscope with blue light.

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