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Tens of thousands of times a year, a technician places a drop of blood on a slide and peers at it under a microscope, searching for malaria parasites. Making a definitive diagnosis requires the technician to look at up to 300 different fields of view over roughly half an hour. This process is repeated over and over, day after day, on every continent except Antarctica. It's tedious work, but it saves lives. Malaria parasites infect over 200 million people and kill 400,000 every year, mostly children in Africa.

Trained and experienced malaria microscopists are rare, however. Fewer than 100 people in the world have the World Health Organization's highest certification, Level 1. "At very low infection levels, finding malaria parasites in a blood sample is the equivalent of finding a handful of marbles in a football field in about 20 minutes," says Cary Champlin, an electrical engineer with the Intellectual Ventures Lab in Bellevue, Washington. He and his research team believe the process can be automated. Computers can learn to recognize faces and fingerprints—why not malaria parasites?

Usually a creative technical solution like this runs up against the unforgiving economics of health care in the developing world: There's so little money to be made that commercial companies don't have an incentive to invest in solutions. Full Story



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