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TB tracking tags demystify disease

Class of 2016: UWC alumnus designs TB tracking tags to demystify deadly disease

Nowadays we know a lot about tuberculosis (TB), but we know much less about the pattern of movement by which the disease spreads. That’s where the work of Darlington Mapiye, University of the Western Cape (UWC) alumnus and IBM research scientist - is proving to be of major importance.

Along with Toby Kurien, an engineer at IBM’s Johannesburg laboratory, Darlington has designed a simple TB-tracking tag which measures the proximity of TB patients, and which could significantly improve our knowledge of how the disease spreads, and perhaps be used to curb the spread of TB in Africa.

Born in Zimbabwe, now living in Fourways, Johannesburg, and having also resided in Brackenfell, Cape Town, Darlington understands how individual movements can spread disease across a continent - even putting a keen runner and soccer player like himself at risk. And he hopes to use that understanding to make the world a little safer for his loving wife, Marceline, and eight-year-old son, Dylan.

“The opportunities for this kind of technology are vast,” he explains.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and is a serious threat to human health - it’s the biggest killer of HIV-positive patients worldwide, and one of the leading causes of death of any kind in South Africa (which also happens to have one of the world’s highest rates of TB infection). But it’s also perfectly manageable and treatable - if more people are aware of and understand the disease.

The device was developed in the Maker Lab at IBM’s second African research lab, situated at the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Incorporated into bracelets and watches and more, the tag is designed to be comfortable and not to draw undue attention to the wearer.

“No two devices will look the same, meaning that even when people who are wearing the device come into contact with each other, they will not know whether the other one is indeed wearing one.”

When rolled out, the tag will be distributed only among those who voluntarily accept its use - whether they have the disease or not. And the device only tracks proximity to other devices, and doesn’t include a GPS or recording device - it’s a data collection tool, not a spying device.  

While the project is still in the testing phase, the team is hoping to commence trials soon in Johannesburg - and thereafter in Kenya, where IBM’s other African research lab is based. The ultimate goal is to lower the number of “missing cases” of TB - the three million TB cases that the WHO estimates are not diagnosed or properly treated.

“The tracking device is a simple tag, useful for both the sick and the healthy,” says Mapiye. “The longer it is in operation and the more data it collects, the more useful it becomes - and if it’s successful, this concept could probably be extended to other diseases.”

UWC: A place to grow...

Darlington completed his doctoral studies at UWC’s South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) in this year’s Autumn Graduation. Dr Junaid Gamieldien, Acting Director of SANBI, is proud of the amazing accomplishments his former student has already made - but not surprised.

“Darlington came here with a strong background in statistics, able to tackle his research topic exceptionally, despite it being a fairly difficult area,” he says. “He completed his Masters quickly, made a new finding, published - and truly shone here as a PhD student. He’s a quick learner - even when it’s a new field, he makes rapid and impressive progress.”

The young researcher tackled a different disease for his PhD research, which looked at Computational genomic approaches for kidney disease in Africa. Using next-generation DNA sequencing, Darlington identified variants in three key genes that may cause kidney disease and help to identify the mechanisms driving renal failure. He also built a database to collect standardized, secure clinical data for kidney disease patients, and made it available as a resource to African researchers seeking clinical data for research within their own centres.

“I’m serious about efficient and effective disease management and prevention,” says Darlington, “and I feel as a UWC graduate that everything is possible. We are producing graduates who know how to work together to tackle big problems - and I’m proud to be one of them.”