ARCHIVED - Ecologically friendly diagnostic tests for developing countries

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June 01, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

Medical point-of-care tests (POCTs), also known as “labs on a chip,” have undergone explosive growth. And for good reason: they’re small, quick, easy-to-use, inexpensive, accurate and portable enough to diagnose a whole range of conditions — hundreds of kilometres from any traditional medical laboratory. 

Different point-of-care tests can confirm pregnancies or detect a wide range of bacteria and viruses harmful to humans, from diseases like tuberculosis to food-borne bacteria such as Listeria. In 2009, POCTs were used for nearly 100 million HIV tests, 70 million malaria tests and 3 million syphilis tests in the developing world alone. 

NRC technical officer Caroline Miville-Godin prepares a medical point-of-care test prototype.

NRC technical officer Caroline Miville-Godin prepares a medical point-of-care test prototype.

However, they have a downside. “Over time, a huge number of these devices will be accumulated,” says Dr. Teodor Veres of the NRC Industrial Materials Institute in Boucherville. “That poses an environmental problem — point-of-care tests become waste that needs to be recovered, handled and managed.” 

Environmental headache 

In Africa, physicians from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have noticed masses of discarded single-use diagnostics piling up for safe disposal, and realized their popularity is creating a significant environmental headache. And so, about 18 months ago, an international consortium led by the London School approached NRC, looking for alternative designs and materials for POCTs with lower environmental and social costs. 

Medical waste should be burned when it poses a biohazard, or otherwise buried in a landfill. But petroleum-based plastics in discarded single-use tests can form new environmental contaminants themselves. 

Caroline Miville-Godin uses NRC’s multi-wafer hot-embossing equipment.

Caroline Miville-Godin uses NRC’s multi-wafer hot-embossing equipment.

To address these issues, NRC began working with the consortium and a manufacturer to make biodegradable tests a reality. Fortunately, it had a head start. Since 2007, a group led by Dr. Christian Bélanger has been developing biodegradable plastics based on renewable plant starches from sources such as triticale, a fast-growing hybrid grain found in Canada. Dr. Veres showed that developing countries could also use starch from locally available plants to manufacture biodegradable thermoplastics for POCTs. He calls the new technology “ecologically friendly rapid diagnostics.” 

Benefits of new technology 

NRC’s biodegradable plastic costs the same or less than petroleum-based plastic. More importantly, it composts without releasing dangerous leachates, usually breaking down completely in two to seven days. 

The NRC starch-based plastics can be inject-moulded or thermoformed on industrial scales using the same machines but at lower temperatures than petroleum-based plastics. 

Dr. Veres says the biodegradable plastic could be used for additional medical applications, such as disposable syringes — even the often elaborate packaging that protects medical items for delivery. Tens of millions of one-shot syringes are used in North America alone each year. 

“A huge mass of medical devices need to be disposed of,” he says. “If we produce ecologically friendly rapid diagnostics at low cost so that they can be deployed affordably, this will reduce the costs of treating people as well as the waste these tests can produce. At the end of the day, the whole value chain would be less costly.”

Related information

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