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Cost-effective, easy to use water testing kit out soon

According to former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, dirty water kills more people than all forms of violence, including war. About 663 million people have no access to safe drinking water; while water-borne diseases from bacterial pathogens result in over 2.2 million deaths per year.

So it was great news when WaterScope, a Cambridge-based outfit came up with a cost-effective, easy to use water testing kit. In this email chat with Vanguard, the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of WaterScope, Dr. Alexander Patto, a geneticist,  speaks on the kit. Excerpts:

By Ebele Orakpo

MOTIVATION: According to Dr. Patto, WaterScope was founded in 2015 with a mission to empower the bottom billions to secure clean water. It was based on a technology developed by Dr. Richard Bowman, one of the co-founders, at the University of Cambridge. “Our technology is a 3D-printed flexure microscope, capable of producing high-resolution images, down to two microns, using a range of imaging modes including transmitted-light, bright field, dark field, epi-illuminated fluorescence and phase contrast.”

The idea: Patto said “The idea to use the technology as bacterial diagnostic came out of a Cambridge project looking into existing water contamination testing methods. Current water testing methods were shown to be ineffective at combating water inequality. One in 10 people lack access to clean  water, with over 80 per cent of those without clean water living in rural low-income communities.”

•Dr Alexander Patto (2nd left) and his group , at work.
Inset is the open-source flexure microscope.

Advantages: “Existing tests are expensive, slow (incubate the water and check for development of bacteria) and require significant training, making them inaccessible to most of those without clean drinking water. We believe a bottom-up approach is the best way to combat inequality, hence,  we are developing a rapid test, based around our open-source flexure microscope which is simple and portable enough for anyone to use, in any location. The test will record data digitally, allowing mapping and real-time intervention by aid agencies.”

Educating communities: The team, at the same time, is using the microscope to provide a platform to educate communities about sanitation and water contamination. “At WaterScope, we hope to incentivize communities and stimulate local economies, fostering sustainable change. We are aware the problem faced is multi-factorial, posing numerous societal, economical, manufacturing and logistical challenges, each of which may be country-dependent,” noted Patto.

Stimulate local economies: “To promote sustainable development, we believe solutions must empower the user and promote stimulation of local economies. We are working with local manufacturing initiatives, including STICLab, a ‘digital blacksmith’ in Tanzania to produce our open-source flexure microscopes from recycled bottles; and AB3D in Kenya, with whom we are 3D-printing open-source instruments for health and education,”  he said.

Cost: Patto, who said they are still refining their system to make it more robust and consistent, promised that an initial product will be in the market at the end of 2018. It is estimated to retail around $250, with consumables costing less than $1. “Our 3D-printed Flexure Stage is an open source.” The team which comprised of biologists, physicists, material scientists and others, received the VC ’s Impact Award, recognising research with benefits beyond academia.


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