Tiny tests, big impact

Burnet Institute

08 December, 2017

Image: Burnet’s Co-Heads of Global Health Diagnostics Development Ms Mary Garcia and Associate Professor David Anderson

If you’re living in a remote area in a country with an under-resourced health system, you might not get access to the sort of laboratory testing and diagnosis patients receive in developed countries.

That’s why Burnet’s diagnostics department is working hard to develop new tests able to diagnose major public health conditions with the ease, low cost and speed of a pregnancy test.

Burnet’s Co-Heads of Global Health Diagnostics Development, Associate Professor David Anderson and Ms Mary Garcia, oversee the creation of these tiny innovations which enable inexpensive same-day diagnosis.

Many ideas initiate from Burnet researchers working with vulnerable communities in resource-constrained countries.

This story appeared in the Spring edition of IMPACT. Read the entire edition here online.

“It is opportunistic. We’ve taken ideas from across the Institute, from the fields of maternal health to HIV and sexual health,” Associate Professor Anderson said.

Despite the need for such diagnostics, it’s often difficult to attract funding for development. Associate Professor Anderson thanked Burnet donor, the late Jean Drury, for her generous gifts in supporting the Global Health Diagnostics Laboratory.

“Support from donors is really important because a lot of our work is not suited to attracting research grants because it’s early-stage, and focused on a particular, practical outcome rather than generating knowledge,” he said.

The Victorian government has also given a grant of AUD$200,000 over two years to collaborate on new reagents for diagnostic tests.

“We now can get a product to market quickly and cheaply in countries where it’s needed, especially through Burnet’s spinoff company, Nanjing BioPoint Diagnostics,” Associate Professor Anderson said.

Read about some of our life-saving diagnostics tests at different stages of development.


Half a million babies are born with congenital syphilis each year and most will die or suffer serious disabilities.

But if pregnant women are diagnosed during their pregnancy, a single dose of penicillin can save their babies’ lives.

Testing has until now been a two-stage process – screening, and then a laboratory blood test, unfeasible in populations far from medical care.

“Many women in developing countries only get one antenatal visit so you need to make sure you do all you can,” Associate Professor Anderson said.

In response to this need, Burnet created the Burnet Syphilis IgA rapid assay, an inexpensive, highly accurate test to enable same-day testing, diagnosis and treatment.

“We’ll be working with our partner Omega Diagnostics in Scotland to move into manufacturing with this product,” he said.

Image: The Burnet Syphilis IgA rapid assay can save babies lives.

THE VL-PLASMA DEVICE – simple, safe testing of HIV viral load

The UNAIDS 90-90-90 target aims at 90 per cent of people with HIV being diagnosed, 90 per cent of people with HIV accessing antiretroviral treatment (ART), and 90 per cent of people on ART showing virus suppression.

But achieving these targets requires regular testing, and transporting blood samples to laboratories is nearly impossible in many developing countries.

To meet this need, Burnet developed the VL-Plasma product, a simple device that collects, separates and dries plasma from whole blood, enabling regular post transport to a laboratory.

Burnet student Berhan Haile developed the test’s strip as the centrepoint of his PhD, testing it on The Alfred hospital patients in Australia. Burnet then collaborated with partners at Axxin Ltd in Melbourne to develop the test’s cartridge, and licensed the test to Burnet’s company in China, Nanjing BioPoint, where it is now being manufactured.

A clinical trial is underway in Malaysia and the VL Plasma device is expected on the market in early 2018.

THE ALT TEST – measuring liver damage easily

In most countries, people with hepatitis B or C only receive treatment if their liver disease is shown to be worsening.

But in Africa and Asia, most people with hepatitis are unaware of their declining liver function and by the time symptoms manifest, it’s often too late for treatment.

Burnet, in collaboration with Nanjing BioPoint, has developed and patented a point-of-care test for the enzyme alanine aminotransferase (ALT), an important indicator of liver function. ALT testing may also help to identify non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, linked to rising levels of obesity.

“We’ve always had to send samples to a lab to test liver function, but with this test we can take a finger prick of blood and get a result in less than 20 minutes,” Associate Professor Anderson said.

“You could also use it to screen for liver disease even before you do a hepatitis test.”

The ALT point-of-care test is expected to enter manufacturing at Nanjing BioPoint by the end of 2017.

Image: The Burnet ALT test can diagnose liver function with just a finger prick.

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Burnet Institute

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