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6th October 2014

Screening for cancer with vinegar and sunlight

From single-serve sachets of shampoo to micro-finance, industries of various sorts have adapted to the special needs of low-resource settings who usually live on less than $2.50 a day. Making shampoo affordable seems easy enough, but what about cancer screenings?

Companies selling basic household goods had to deal with finding a way to reach their customers and offer affordable solutions: single-serve sachets for example were created as many would not have the resources to “invest” in a 500 ml Head & Shoulders, but would have enough cash to buy a single-serve bottle every couple of days.

And while hygiene and access to finance are essential for growth, tackling disease often means diagnosing conditions as quickly and cheaply as possible.  Two recent examples of low cost medtech hit the news earlier this year: the 50-cent origami microscope, and the aquarium pump breathing machine. Both show how creativity strives in low-resource settings and how sometimes simplest solutions are the best.

Vinegar, tablets and paper strips

Cervical cancer takes most its victims in developing countries and not only because of the populous. Screening is vital, yet lack of resources, training, and a tight budget keep the hands tied for professionals. And then there are the simple solutions, like your simple household vinegar. Last summer, a Bombay-based study showed that diluted vinegar will discolour abnormal cells for a brief amount of time. There is no special lab equipment, no special training, very low costs and fast results. In terms of accuracy, it ranks up their with the Pap test, the long-standing gold standard of cervical cancer screening. Similar vinegar tests have been run for breast cancer diagnostics, with results expected to be promising.

Tablets or smartphones may be able to take on the same problem with a decidely more digital approach. A Michigan State University-driven project termed “Gene-Z” “can screen for established genetic markers of cancer at extremely low costs in the field,” project leader Syed Hashsham described to Science Daily, “because it is a hand-held device operated by a battery and chargeable by solar energy, it is extremely useful in limited-resource settings.” A year after its development the technique was already showing promising results in testing for the presence of several genetic markers using only one sample. The device, could also be used in the future to diagnose tuberculosis and screen HIV levels in the near future.

But can you diagnose cancer in a simple, fast and easy-to-use way with only a paper-strip ? MIT researchers claim that they can. Cancer cells that interact with biomarkers created by the research team cause fragments of the marker to slip off and eventually float down and appear in urine. As simple as a pregnancy test, the strip gives results within the hour and displays cancer cell presence. While human trials are yet to begin, this invention could make cancer detectable at an early stage for many in developing regions.

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Header photo credit: McKay Savage/Wikimedia

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