Filipino Scientist Wins $200,000 Award for COVID-19 Test You Attach to Your Phone
Filipino scientist Rhoel Dinglasan and his team at the University of Florida were recently recognized for developing a rapid saliva test using a smartphone to diagnose COVID-19, along with malaria and anemia.
The professor of infectious diseases had teamed up with industry partners to win second place in the National Institutes of Health’s Technology Accelerator Challenge.
The contest called for the design and development of low-cost and accessible ways to assess two major diseases, among them, malaria, anemia, and sickle cell disease. Another requirement was the use of a mobile device or a portable attachment.
Dinglasan, who is also director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, said when they were preparing for the contest, COVID-19 was already the big news of the day.
“Luminostics’ CEO Dr. Bala Raja reached out to me in March after reading about our malaria rapid diagnostic test that uses saliva in Science Translational Medicine (one of the top journals in the world),” says Dinglasan. “He wanted to see if we could marry his company’s technology platform with our test using our lab’s know-how and expertise with disease biomarker discovery in saliva to expand the testing capability to anemia. I said we needed to include COVID-19 since the world was experiencing a pandemic.”
At the time, the competition guidelines did not include COVID-19 but Dinglasan says since they knew the virus was present in saliva, “it was easy to put everything together.”
Dinglasan notes different viruses such as dengue, influenza, measles, and others are in saliva as well.
“Antibodies against pathogens are in your saliva. Stress hormones and other biomarkers for concussion and so forth are in your saliva. So if you probe saliva, you can potentially get a snapshot of your overall health (or infection status). Simple idea, no? A camera snapshot of biomarkers for disease in your saliva is basically a selfie of your health. I like to say that the saliva is the spitting image of your health!”
Dinglasan says Sanofi had already signed up to work with Luminostics even before the results of the competition were released.
“We’ve also developing a partner COVID-19 test (again from saliva) that would be able to detect SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies that are present in your saliva before you are symptomatic (asymptomatic carriage), during symptomatic infection and after you have recovered,” says Dinglasan.
Winning the competition means the project will be presented to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We are hoping the Gates Foundation will support us provide co-funding. But even if they don’t, maybe there will be interest from other philanthropists, maybe even from the Philippines and other ASEAN countries, in supporting this effort to get a point of care test into your home or school,” says Dinglasan. “We will just have to wait and see. Of course, we will also try to win additional NIH grants and keep competing for such funding to keep the momentum.
Dinglasan went to the University of the Philippines Diliman for two years before moving to the U.S. and graduating from the University of Virginia.
He received his master’s degree in Global Health and Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale School of Public Health (he was president of the school’s student council while there).
“Afterward, I entered the Ph.D program at Yale, but after four years, my adviser left the U.S. and went to Australia with my thesis so I lost everything (my full scholarship was only for Yale). So I started from square one again,” says Dinglasan, who went on to finish his Ph.D on malaria from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Dinglasan then did postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins University, receiving two competitive postdoctoral fellowships and a career development award, after which he stayed on at the university as assistant professor at the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“In 2015, I was recruited to the University of Florida as part of their Preeminence Initiative (the university’s goal to enter into the top 10 U.S. public universities). My wife is from Florida and we had lived far from her family for a long time so she asked me to seriously consider the move,” says Dinglasan. “I made a somewhat hard choice to leave Hopkins for UF, but how often do you have an opportunity to choose family over career? I figured, it is not where you are that matters, but what you do wherever you are.”
Dinglasan moved his entire program from Hopkins to UF as an associate professor. Two months later, he won his first large grant: $10 million to start the CDC Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, where he is now the center's director. He received tenure after a full year at UF was promoted to full professor in July this year.
“I have been blessed with a solid crew and we’re doing our best to make a difference whenever possible,” he said, before excusing himself to go back to his most important work, putting his two kids to bed.