NIH grant to launch center for diagnostics to improve global health

An interdisciplinary team led by Cornell has received a five-year grant to launch a new center for engineering, testing and commercializing point-of-care diagnostic devices that will have international reach.

The center, Point of Care Technologies for Nutrition, Infection and Cancer for Global Health (PORTENT), will be led by David Erickson, the Sibley College Professor of Mechanical Engineering in Cornell Engineering, and Dr. Saurabh Mehta, the Janet and Gordon Lankton Professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, which is housed jointly in the College of Human Ecology and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

PORTENT will be funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), Fogarty International Center and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – components of the National Institutes of Health.

“The center can be imagined as an incubator, taking mid-stage technologies for nutrition, infection and cancer, with particular relevance to global health, where we will provide them the technological development support, funding to move their work forward, and expertise in validating and disseminating their work,” Mehta said.

The center is the latest addition to NIBIB’s series of initiatives that develop and disseminate technologies with clinical applications through multidisciplinary partnerships, such as one that accelerated the production of rapid diagnostics for SARS-CoV-2.

Partnering with Cornell in PORTENT will be a number of universities and health organizations. New technologies will be validated at four clinical sites: Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City; St. John’s Research Institute in India; the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral in Ecuador; and the Infectious Diseases Institute in Kampala in Uganda. This clinical and validation core will be co-led by Dr. Marshall Glesby, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Julia Finkelstein, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

Teams at McGill University and Columbia University, led by McGill professor Dr. Nitika Pai and Columbia professor Samuel Sia, will provide training and help build capacity for the developers as they tailor their technology and develop business plans to bring their products from lab to market.

The PORTENT center will operate under the auspices of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and will also be supported by Cornell Engineering and the College of Human Ecology.

The need for affordable point-of-care diagnostics was highlighted in a 2021 report from the Lancet Diagnostics Commission that noted that nearly half of the world’s population does not have access to testing for primary care.

“How do we make impact in a much-needed area right now and amplify or multiply it? That basically is the goal,” Mehta said. “We have been doing this through individual projects. We have worked with almost all of the included partners on this center, individually or in some capacity. This center brings all of that under a single umbrella for maximal real-world impact.”

Erickson and Mehta began collaborating more than a decade ago, combining Erickson’s technological and engineering know-how with Mehta’s expertise in nutrition and health to create portable systems that have the ability to generate diagnostic results for patients quickly at the point of care, accelerating the speed of accurate diagnosis – and eventually treatment.

One of their joint efforts, a low-cost, rapid test to detect iron and vitamin A deficiencies to screen for anemia, will be among the initial projects PORTENT will focus on in its first year, along with tests for cervical cancer, sexually transmitted diseases and malaria.

Erickson sees PORTENT as benefiting two types of developers: those who have a problem and those who have a solution.

“If you’re the person with a clinical problem and an idea that there’s a need for a particular type of diagnostic that might offer a solution in this setting, then you would come to us and we provide some funding and resources to develop a technology or connect you with somebody else who’s developing a technology,” he said. “If you’re the solution person, that means you’ve got this technology, you’ve done some level of validation on it, and you think there’s a real opportunity to test this out on a particular disease. We can provide the funds to enable that to happen.”

In the next five years, the center plans to: launch 20 projects, 30% of which will be outside the U.S.; enroll 15 teams into its Global Health Lab-to-Market accelerator program; train 30 health-care workers from low- and middle-income countries to use point-of-care technologies; and provide more than 20 clinical rotations for technology developers.

“What I’m looking forward to is making things happen in a bigger way than we can do by ourselves and raising the profile of this type of technology development and research, and the importance of it, in the United States,” Erickson said.

Mehta agreed that the center’s collaborative spirit is key to spurring the kind of technological development that will make a difference for global populations as soon as possible.

“We want to find solutions for problems today,” Mehta said. “What can we implement today? And can we make it affordable and accessible? That’s where the point-of-care technologies and the purpose of this center converge.”