AI could help millions suffering from river blindness

River blindness (or Onchocersiasis) is a disease caused by a parasitic worm and is spread through the bite of blackflies, which breed in rivers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that 18 million people are infected with the disease worldwide. Some 6.5 million of these patients have developed dermatitis as a result and 270,00 have gone blind. River blindness is particularly common in impoverished communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

A new project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is proposing a high-tech solution. Healthtech startup Niramai has announced the foundation will help fund the development of AI-based software that will help halt the transmission of the disease.

The Indian-based company has previously had success using AI and high-tech solutions for cancer screening

Niramai will build on its existing Thermalytix (thermal imaging) technology and artificial intelligence to develop tools to screen patients for the presence of the live worms that cause River Blindness. The company is based in Bangalore and has a range of proprietary technology incorporating AI, big data and machine learning into breast cancer screening.

“We are excited to collaborate with Gates Foundation to extend the application of our innovative technique to areas other than breast cancer,” the company said in a statement.

It is anticipated the new screening technology will also provide more detailed information on how effective new drugs being developed to kill the worms have been.

Dr. Geetha Manjunath, who co-founded Niramai with Nidhi Mathur and serves as its CEO, said: “We are very excited to collaborate with the Gates Foundation to extend the application of our innovative technique to areas other than breast cancer.

“Successful completion of this research project will demonstrate a breakthrough result of Thermalytix being a new way of sensing many abnormalities in human body in a non-invasive, radiation-free, and accurate way, even beyond cancer.”

Dr Christopher L. King from The Centre for Global Health and Diseases in Cleveland, Ohio said the technology could “be a valuable tool to…help with the global effort to eliminate his very disabling disease.”

The Thermalytix technology uses a thermal sensing device and a diagnostics engine powered by AI.

Towards eliminating river blindness

Onchocersiasis is the second most common infectious cause of blindness in the world. Apart from visual impairment, symptoms include disfigured and depigmented skin, chronic itching, elephantiasis of the genitals, weight loss, an altered immune system and, in extreme cases, epilepsy and growth impairment.

Disturbingly, the worms can live inside a human body for up to 14 years.

Efforts to eliminate black flies, along with effective medicines to treat the disease, mean river blindness is now far less prevalent than it once was. It continues to impact on millions of lives, however, and has been identified as a priority under The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s strategy to target NTDs (neglected tropical diseases).

The foundation is also funding research into river blindness

A separate project will see Gary Weil of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis lead clinical trials and research which aims to eliminate river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, which causes elephantiasis. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has already pledged around US$6 million to the first stage of the project and may fund up to US$24.7 million on it in total depending on the progress of the early work.

“Globally, enormous progress has been made in reducing lymphatic filariasis and river blindness, but it will take decades to achieve full elimination with current treatment strategies.” Weil said.

“So there is an urgent need to develop new tools and approaches to speed the elimination of both diseases.”

Co-founded by Bill and Melinda Gates in 2000, the foundation describes itself as being made up of “impatient optimists”. It seeks to apply a venture capital mentality to the philanthropic sector and has provided tens of billions of dollars of funding to projects involving HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive health, agricultural development and more.

Header image credit: Kjetil Ree

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