One Drop, Two Lives

You often speak of silent assassins, what are you referring to?

J. M. : They are all the diseases that have no symptoms until it is too late. When diabetes becomes noticeable with cir­culatory problems, you may already be blind. When kidney disease occurs with blood in the toilet, you will have to live on dialysis. However, ten years earlier, these diseases could be pain­lessly prevented. It is enough to walk a bit more, drink more water or eat more healthy foods to drastically diminish the probability of being affected by dia­betes. Each year, according to UNICEF, 7.1 million people die from hyperten­sion, 4.4 million from high cholesterol, 2.6 million from obesity, 1.5 million from diabetes. Sadly, in developing countries, the authorities concentrate on transmissible infectious diseases like malaria.

How did you come to be interested in the issue of prevention?

J. M. : I have training in chemical engineering and I had been assigned to an intensive care unit in Barcelona. All the patients repeated: “Had known ear­lier, I would have changed a lot of things in my life”. In 2008, I read in the news­paper that 40 % of the people who die of cardiovascular disease could have been saved if their level of cholesterol had been controlled during childhood. Later on, when we were vaccinated before leaving for South Africa, my 8-year-old son started crying when he saw the needles. I slowly realized that making people who believe themselves to be in perfect health take blood or genetic tests is not that simple. A new method was needed.

And so you imagined your needleless blood test.

J. M. : What can a sample be easily obtained from?  Blood. We have therefore developed, with Dr. Juan Fidel Bencomo, a lancet that can take a drop of blood from the finger in a totally painless way. The blood is then preser­ved on a piece of paper. Several pro­blems are thus resolved. No need for a punctured vein or specialized person­nel. No need for a refrigerated environ­ment either. When blood coagulates, it loses all its characteristics and it is no longer possible to analyze it. AIDS, for example, dies after one hour. But when blood dries on paper, it keeps its pro­perties. The sample can even be sent by mail and then used to detect a great number of diseases. All of this cuts the cost of a test by ten.

That seems easy.  Why doesn’t everyone use this technique?

J. M. : With one single drop of blood, only three or four parameters can be tested. In developed countries, it is often preferred to take more blood and keep it refrigerated in a tube. And it is indeed better to detect diseases from A to Z. But in many Southern countries, adequate equipment for the cold chain is not available. 90 % of the population lives far from a hospital or dispensary. Also, getting pricked by a needle isn’t sexy, so it is rare that the population would decide to do it wit­hout an apparent reason. We won an award from Singularity University,1 but it isn’t because our solution is the most elaborate. It is rather because it is simple and can change the lives of millions of people.

Where has this solution been tested so far?

J. M. : We first worked with the Brazilian government two years ago, with 84,000 pregnant women in the favelas of Rio. We worked with a federal laboratory to train the local staff and open laborato­ries. 4,000 pregnant women tested posi­tive in our tests. It is very important: when the mother has AIDS, the child has a 98 % chance of escaping it if detected in time. Thanks to the program Making More Health, we then made a campaign to test cholesterol and glucose levels of the employees of Boehringer Ingelheim, in Sao Paulo and Manilla. For every test taken, another was given for free in the shanty towns and favelas.

Therefore the richest finance the poorest?

J. M. : Yes. We call this method “one drop for two lives”. We have thus tested 10,000 students in Madrid, Spain. With the funds received, we bought backpacks containing solar panels, a computer and blood test instruments for the jungles of Guatemala. It is all connected to a doctor capable of doing a tele diagnostic, like a sort of mobile hospital. We now want to do low-cost genetic testing. That has never been as easy as testing lactose intolerance. On our platform,2 for 25 euros, you receive a kit to collect your saliva, you send it in, and we run the test. For each test, we distribute forty glasses of milk in coun­tries in difficulty like Syria. This solida­rity mechanism allows us to incite even more people to take the plunge. Our goal is to distribute 600,000 glasses by Christmas 2017.

Is prevention to be further developed in the 21st century?

J. M. : When you go to the doctor, or if a pharmaceutical company sells its products too well, it means that the system of prevention has failed. Sadly, some organizations still prefer to sell medicine rather than preven­ting diseases over time. I nonetheless believe that there is a growing awar­eness of the fact that prevention, as well as the promotion of healthy habits, can save a countless number of lives. We hope to develop partnerships with major groups that will finance our laboratories.

By Côme Bastin

  1. A California innovation center seeking “to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”
  2. Go to http ://dbs-screening.org to take the test.