McMaster projects win big global health grants

A test that quickly determines the cause of a bout of diarrhea. A sanitation system that converts human and fish waste into fuel. Neither project is glamourous, but both have turned out to be golden for researchers at McMaster University.

Efforts could save lives, improve economies in Africa, researchers say

A test that quickly determines the cause of a bout of diarrhea. A sanitation system that converts human and fish waste into a source of fuel.

Neither project is glamourous, but both have turned out to be golden for researchers at Hamilton's McMaster University and could save lives in Africa. 

Two groups at the university have each won $100,000 grants from Grand Challenges Canada, a federally funded body that doles out money for researchers and entrepreneurs working in global health

"The whole team's very excited," said Dr. Jeff Pernica, an assistant professor of pediatrics at McMaster University, who is helping to develop a test that makes it easier for healthcare workers to determine the cause of diarrhea.

"Grand Challenges Canada has done a lot to provide fund projects that before would have been a lot harder to back. So this kind of thing is really amazing news for all of us."

The grant, he said, will allow his team, which includes researchers in Canada, the U.S. and Africa, to conduct a year-long study at a hospital in Gabarone, the capital of Botswana.

New test

Starting in late 2013, they will test 100 children who are admitted to the facility for acute diarrhea with a new type of swab that tests for specific germs, including harmful strains of E. coli.

Jeff Pernica is an assistant professor of pediatric medicine at McMaster University. (Supplied)

Pernica said many medical facilities in sub-Saharan Africa often don't take stool samples from children suffering from diarrhea because they lack the proper resources,

"Kids come into hospital, and as long they don't have bloody diarrhea, nobody does any testing," he said. "But a lot of these kids, even if they don't have bloody diarrhea, could have treatable causes."

The swab tests, he said, represent a more cost-effective, relatively convenient way for healthcare professionals to determine what the specific cause of the condition might be and whether a prescribing medication — antibiotics, for example — would be appropriate.

Related: 'Fecal transplants' used to treat C. difficile cases 

The cost of not developing better diagnostics, he said, is grave, especially for people in low-income countries. 

"Diarrhea, or diarrheal disease, I should say, is the second-leading killer of [children under five]," said Pernica, citing figures from the World Health Organization.

"And the ones that survive, their growth and development is affected. So it does a lot to prevent adults from reaching their full potential."

Fuel from waste

A focus on human waste is, strangely, one trait among many that Pernica's work shares with the other McMaster-affiliated project that has just won a Grand Challenges Canada Grant.

But instead of testing for pathogens, researchers at the United Nations University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health want to exploit its potential as a source of energy.   

Corinne Schuster-Wallace, a McMaster environmental studies prof, is leading an international team that's planning a sanitation system for Uganda that would turn human excrement and byproducts from fish farming into biofuel.

"It's exciting that we can move forward with the project because we can see a huge potential for changing lives in Uganda," she said.

Children in Uganda play near a waste pit that contains both litter and human excrement. Not having access to proper sanitation facilities, researchers says, is a major threat to human health. (Courtesy of Corinne Schuster-Wallace)

She noted the sub-Saharan country, like many in the developing world, does not have proper sanitation systems. Many Ugandans are left with little choice but to defecate in fields, creeks or ditches — often contaminating the water supply.

The biofuel project, Schuster-Wallace said, offers a potential fix for the problem.

Service providers would cart off the waste and put it into massive underground tanks. The methane gas produced would be captured and then used as fuel. And the remaining sludge, Schuster-Wallace said, could be sold as fertilizer.

"The argument is, and what we're premising with this grant, is that there's wealth in waste," she said. "This could be a different finance model for sanitation."

Engaging local stakeholders

If it's implemented, the system could bolster African economies in other ways, Schuster-Wallace said. Improved sewage systems would cut down on the prevalence of water-borne diseases, which would in turn boost worker productivity.

Corinee Schuster-Wallace is an adjunct professor with McMaster University's Department of Geography and Environmental Science. (Supplied)

The next stage in the project, she said, is embarking on the "mucky" work of consulting local governments, entrepreneurs and community groups on how they can bring the plan into being. 

"[We are] trying to make sure that all sectors and all stakeholders understand what it is that they put into the system and what it is that they get out of it, because that's the only way to make it sustainable," she said.

"People have to be engaged and have to be willing to own this," she added. "That's where the bold idea is."