Canadians have won grants worth $1.5 million to develop innovative ways to tackle pressing health problems in developing countries, such as cheap filters to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Grand Challenges Canada announced that 15 "rising stars" each won a $100,000 grant on Thursday to develop their innovations.

si-ullah-aman-220-cp

Aman Ullah wants to develop inexpensive filters to remove the toxic metal arsenic from contaminated ground water so people in developing countries can safely drink it. (Grand Challenges Canada)

"Innovation anywhere is innovation everywhere," said Dr. Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada. "The sort of innovations we develop have uses globally, have uses locally, they're often more affordable."

For example, grant recipient Karim S. Karim of Waterloo, Ont., is working on a device for rapid, low-cost detection of tuberculosis, which is a problem both in the developing world and in First Nations communities.

"Canadians can really make a difference in health and well-being of people in low- and middle-income countries," said Singer.

The grants are meant to fund ideas such as a simply designed, inexpensive prosthetic leg and a test for pneumonia that can be done on a cellphone in poor countries with few resources.

Aman Ullah of the University of Alberta in Edmonton is developing his idea of using chicken feathers combined with a polymer to make cheap, biodegradable filters to remove arsenic from drinking water in developing countries.

The filter would sit on top of a jug that collects the potable water. Ullah said the protein in feathers is very efficient at removing metal, but different filters need to be designed to meet the demands of families ranging in size from a couple to 20 people.

More than 140 million people in Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and China need filters to remove arsenic from the water they drink, Ullah said.

"The target is to provide them with cheap filters, which can efficiently remove the toxic metal and they can get pure drinking water."

Currently, the only choice many people face is to drink the contaminated water and risk cancer and other diseases caused by exposure to the toxic metal, or not drink the water and die of thirst.

Saliva HIV test success

Other Canadian grant recipients include:

• In Vancouver: Walter Karlen is developing a low-cost cellphone test to diagnose pneumonia in the developing world.

• In Edmonton: Dr.Karim Damji is developing methodologies for preventing and treating glaucoma, a major cause of blindness in poor countries.

• In Toronto: Jan Andrysek is creating an inexpensive and effective artificial knee joint for disabled people in the developing world.

• In Montreal: Dr. Cedric Yansouni is working on a diagnostic that is cost effective and non-invasive to determine whether a patient has visceral leishmaniasis, a deadly disease.

• In Quebec City: David Richard is working on a low-cost vaccine for malaria, a disease that infects 216 million people a year and kills 655,000 annually.

The Grand Challenges program is two years old, but there are already some early successes.

Last week, a study reported that a simple saliva test supported by the program is just as effective as blood tests to diagnose HIV in developing countries facing an epidemic.

With files from CBC's Pauline Dakin