A diverse mix of researchers and professors attended the Beckman Laser Institute’s Seminar at the Cove to learn about bio-photonics and its application in the fight against malaria. Prof. Bruce Tromberg introduced the day’s speakers, Prof. Jeremie Zoueu and Aboma Merdasa. Prof. Zoueu is a French-trained physicist originally from Cote d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast, Africa. After obtaining his Ph.D. and researching abroad, he returned to Cote d’Ivoire to teach optics and establish the Photonics research program at the National Polytechnic Institute in Yamoussoukro. He is currently on sabbatical and researching drugs to combat malaria at Virginia Commonwealth University. Aboma Merdasa is a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical Physics at Lund University in Sweden. His dissertation is on the use of optical super-resolution microscopy to characterize organic solar cell materials. At Lund, Merdasa has contributed to the development of economically-feasible instruments and methodology for detection of malaria in affected areas.
Both Prof. Zoueu and Merdasa are active members of the African Spectral Imaging Network (AFSIN). The AFSIN was established to put spectroscopic methods into practice for health and agriculture in the developing world. Prof. Tromberg, who is also involved in the organization, describes the work of AFSIN and research of Prof. Zoueu and Merdasa as being directed at “problems that physics can solve, rather than working on very fundamental problems in physics.” AFSIN educates students in spectroscopy, training them to operate new optical instrumentation and encouraging collaborative research toward solving societal problems in Africa.
Malaria continues to be a common and critical problem in Africa and parts of South America and Asia. Prof. Zoueu stressed that insufficient diagnosis of malaria is one key issue that hinders eradicating the disease. Diagnoses are made by blood collection and visual inspection by clinic staff using simple, visible light-based microscopes. This manual process is time-consuming and unreliable. He noted that in severe cases, a patient that has their blood collected in the morning may not survive to receive the results by the same afternoon. Prof. Zoueu’s research at his home institute and with AFSIN is on optical methods to efficiently diagnose and treat malaria patients, specifically in clinics with limited resources. Prof. Zoueu’s research group has built instruments, such as multi-spectral and -modal microscopes, in attempts to automate and reliably measure diagnostic traits in a patient’s blood. Additionally, they have approached the widespread malaria problem from a wider perspective, designing techniques using remote sensing spectroscopy to understand how environmental factors affect mosquito growth and spread.
Merdasa went on to explain his research exploring spectroscopic solutions for diagnosing malaria. Merdasa and his group have built a new type of microscope to image red blood cells and evaluate blood-borne infections. Their instrument was designed with unique features to rapidly and accurately assess hundreds of individual cells in a single photo. LED lights are employed to illuminate the sample across the light spectrum, from ultraviolet to visible, and to infrared. The multispectral images that are captured can be analyzed by multivariate processes to extract spectral elements and identify differences between healthy and infected cells. These methods that automate and standardize the diagnostic practices of blood-borne diseases in efficient, economic manners will undoubtedly revolutionize healthcare and have widespread, positive effects in developing countries.