Malaria, Florinda’s journey to bring a tailor-made diagnostic system to Africa

Malaria, Florinda's journey to bring a tailor-made diagnostic system to Africa


Traveling for about 9 thousand kilometers from Pisa to Nairobi. There, Florinda Chorus PhD student at the Department of Information Engineering at the University of Pisa, she arrived at the beginning of June with a precise objective: to remedy the lack of effective, easy and quick to use diagnostic systems for malaria, but above all achievable on the place and easy to maintain. We reached her online to let us tell her about the project and her professional and human experience.

From the University of Pisa to that of Nairobi

Florinda obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Pisa in 2017 and 2021. During her master’s degree she spent two periods abroad participating in two summer schools aimed at the collaborative design of open-source medical devices in Nairobi (Kenya) and Kampala (Uganda) in 2017 and 2019 respectively, so his interest in low-resource environments was born years and years ago.

His research activity is currently aimed at the development of open-source medical devices for low-middle income countries with particular attention to an in vitro diagnostic tool for the diagnosis of malaria disease. His interests range from design, mechanical and electronic prototyping to regulation with the aim of making safe, appropriate and convenient medical devices accessible to all. In short, his research aims at a medicine available to everyone.

Facilitate the diagnosis of malaria

In Kenya, it is doing just that: testing the malaria device so that it is easy to use even in environments with scarce resources. In fact, at the moment it is complicated to carry out analyzes for malaria in the poorest countries where it is most widespread because the personnel must be highly specialized, the costs are high and the times long.

The device that Florinda wants to test, in force at the E. Piaggio Research Center of the University of Pisa, would avoid all these problems. “Working in the field – Florinda explains – will allow me to put into practice all the work carried out over the years. I will be able to touch the actual limits of areas with low resources but high risk, and I will be able to collaborate with various colleagues of the place in order to better overcome the difficulties that unfortunately in these places have been neglected for a long time.Interfacing with other engineers but also with healthcare professionals in other sectors such as doctors and nurses will be a unique opportunity to learn and grow and, perhaps, to save millions of lives in the coming years as well”.

The problem of donated devices

In Kenya there are about 10,000 deaths a year from malaria, compared to almost 4 million cases a year. In Nairobi there are more than 2,000 a year and right here, at Kenyatta University, Florinda Coro will work about two and a half months to create an in vitro diagnosis system for malaria: “The problem is that in areas with low resources, like the rural areas of Sub-Saharan African countries, most of the medical equipment comes thanks to donations. But in the end, less than a third actually works,” explains Florinda.

The reason is simple: the instruments designed for European or US hospitals do not find the conditions to function in hospitals in these areas. “So my first task will be to understand precisely why. The reasons can be a lack of current or sudden changes in voltage, difficulty in finding drinking water, lack of specialized personnel”.

Understanding needs and offering solutions

This phase is called ‘need assessment’ and requires you to visit the facilities in person. “We already have a first prototype of a diagnostic system: with this analysis we will adapt it more precisely to the context in which it will have to work”, continues Florinda. In this case, the in vitro diagnostic system developed in Pisa and entrusted to Florinda Coro consists of a device for making a blood smear, a low-cost microscope and an Artificial Intelligence algorithm that allows automatic diagnosis. All open-source devices, therefore freely shared, in which every component, from design to source code, can be studied, modified, reproduced. “This will allow you to use it even in the absence of expert technicians”, continues Coro.

Work and emotions in the field

But it’s not just about experimenting with a diagnostic tool: Florinda’s journey, more generally, will experiment with a working method. In fact, engineer Coro will work side by side with his African colleagues to experiment, adjust, modify and perfect a design method that is tailor-made for that specific context”.

How are you finding yourself so far from Pisa? “I have already been to Nairobi in the past and I have always found a climate of great acceptance from the local population, both from patients and from staff. My biggest fear is not being able to do enough, but with help from colleagues on site, I’m sure the project will go well”.

Work as a team with local staff

In particular, the number one contact person at Kenyatta University will be the doctor June Madete, with which Centro E. Piaggio has been collaborating for some time. In fact, Madete is one of the partners of the Ubora project, a project funded by the European community 2017-2019 with which a collaborative design platform for medical devices was created.

“The research of the engineer Florinda Coro – comments the professor Carmelo De Mariaone of the managers of the Ubora platform – is part of a broader process of international collaboration on health technologies, which over the years has also involved the United Nations, i.e. since it was understood that the health of the population is the most important asset of a country”. And also for Coro it is not the first time in Kenya: “in 2017 I attended a summer school again at Kenyatta University: an interesting design school that was of great help to me for the project I am carrying out today”.


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