A look into the future of Daktari Diagnostics and their handheld CD4 cell counter.
Daktari Diagnostics' slogan says it all: “Today There is No Place Out of Reach.” When it officially launches in the first quarter of 2014, Daktari's handheld CD4 cell counter will enable millions of people in developing nations living with HIV to be tested quickly and affordably, in order to determine appropriate treatment interventions. An affordable treatment regimen for HIV has been available in the developing world for more than a decade, but one thing stands between patients and the medication they so desperately need: the lack of reliable diagnostic equipment to test them. In the US, physicians can draw blood, send the test to a laboratory and receive the results a day later—sometimes sooner. Unfortunately, most of the developing world does not have access to a centralized laboratory system capable of rapid turnaround. “We needed a more targeted diagnostic test that could be used by anyone in rural clinics,” says Bill Rodriguez, MD, CEO, Daktari Diagnostics in Cambridge, of his company's battery-operated, easy-to-use device. “Now, suddenly, we can bring treatments in a much simpler way to 30 million people worldwide who need to be treated.” Daktari has been testing the handheld device in clinical trials in Kenya for most of this year, and will also conduct trials in Botswana, South Africa, and Uganda over the next few months. Once the company launches, Dr. Rodriguez expects Daktari's equipment to be used to test hundreds of thousands of people in 2014, and ramp up to as many as 5 million people starting in 2015. A renowned global health expert, Dr. Rodriguez gained most of his international health care experience serving as Chief Medical Officer at the William J. Clinton Foundation from 2003 to 2007. The Foundation closely collaborated with governments in the developing world, international agencies and pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies to introduce their products to Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, China, India and South America. Near the end of his training at Brigham and Women's and Massachusetts General Hospitals, Dr. Rodriguez performed laboratory research on a diagnostics project that targeted HIV in the developing world. As he was leaving to join the Clinton Foundation, he met Mehmet Toner, PhD, a professor at MGH, in whose lab the technology for the Daktari testing device was being developed. The pair continued to work on the device. For the past several years, Drs. Rodriguez and Toner have worked to refine the CD4 cell counter technology and to launch the company. Along with funding from Mass General Brigham Innovation Fund, the project was financed by Norwich Ventures, Merck, and angel investors. While the distribution of diagnostic tests has long proven challenging in developing nations due to the need to sell directly to hundreds of individual clinics, Daktari will be able to sell its devices to government ministries, which will use their own distribution systems to deliver them to rural health facilities. The ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world provides an efficient means of transmitting planning, purchasing, and monitoring data between the clinics and the central government ministries. The Daktari research team, which includes a number of MGH and Harvard-trained scientists and engineers, is beginning to focus on new products to follow quickly on the CD4 launch. “There are a number of other diseases in the developing world that don't have the right diagnostic tests,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “But treatments are becoming readily available at a reasonable price.” Soon, he says, Daktari will dive into those diseases as well.