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CWRU Grad Wins $100,000 for Malaria Diagnosis Device

A former Case Western Reserve University graduate student has won $100,000 in a national business competition to help fund the Cleveland-based biomed startup he co-founded, which is developing a test that can rapidly diagnose malaria. The award, funded by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, was announced Friday.

In 2012, John Lewandowski and Case malaria researcher Brian Grimberg formed Disease Diagnostic Group to develop a handheld device which uses magnets and simple optics to pick up even tiny amounts of the malaria parasite in a patient’s blood, promising to save millions of lives a year.

The Cupid’s Cup Business Competition, held at the University of Maryland, is an annual competition awarding the work of undergraduate, graduate and recent graduate student entrepreneurs. The competition is chaired by Plank, who is a 1996 graduate of the school.

Lewandowski, 23, won $75,000 and was awarded an additional $25,000 in exchange for a piece of the company, which he accepted. Lewandowski also won $5,000 as the audience favorite, decided by text vote from about 1,000 people attending.

"I've been traveling for the past eight weekends for business plan competitions, and we've actually won all of them," he said. "This is by far the biggest one."

Lewandowski, a Cleveland native who is now a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduated in 2012 from Case with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and economics, and a master’s degree in engineering and management.

Working with Grimberg's original concept in CWRU's [think]box fabrication lab, Lewandowski helped shrink down the size of the device to make it practical for use.

The company’s test, called the Rapid Assessment of Malaria device, or RAM, has several advantages over existing methods of testing for the disease. Traditionally, doctors use a microscope in a lab to examine the blood for signs of the malaria parasite, but this can be expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to deliver to rural areas where the disease is most common.

Other rapid tests that use a dipstick to pick up proteins in the blood, much like a pregnancy test, can’t detect very small numbers of the parasites. Picking up parasites at low levels -- when patients often still feel well but are carriers of the disease and infecting others -- is key to eradicating malaria, which kills more than 600,000 people a year.

The RAM detector picks up iron-rich crystals shed by malaria parasites after they eat hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. The iron, which is a metal, is magnetic, and can be manipulated within a blood sample and detected in characteristic patterns when viewed through a laser light.

The detector's results take less than a minute and cost about 20 cents, cheaper than other rapid tests, which can cost about 50 cents. Lab tests show the device can pick up as few as 17 parasites in a microliter of blood, compared to about 100 parasites per microliter for microscopes and other rapid tests. Accuracy is also better, according to company lab tests: 97 percent accuracy for the RAM compared to about 85 percent accuracy for other rapid tests and 50 percent for microscopes.

Last summer, the company successfully raised the $250,000 necessary to start field trials of the device, which are now underway in Peru and India.

"Right now we're at the end of the prototyping phase and looking to partner with a manufacturer that can help us produce a product that can be scaled," Lewandowski said. "Things have really started to pick up. As we progress the pressure builds, but that's a good thing-- it makes me want to succeed even more."

Picture: John Lewandowski, left and Case Western Reserve University malaria researcher Brian Grimberg, right, formed Disease Diagnostic Group in 2012 to develop their rapid diagnosis device for malaria. Lewandowski, now a graduate student at MIT, now has $100,000 to put towards their business plan after winning the 2014 Cupid's Cup competition, which awards student entrepreneurs. (John Kuntz/The Plain Dealer)

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