GeneForward: Bringing disease detection to those who need it, before they need it.

Alvarez Spark Innovation Award recipient, Team GeneForward, is developing a rapid diagnostic device for infectious diseases. The team’s mission is to bring affordable, accurate, and rapid detection of infectious diseases to those who need it, before they need it. The team is composed of medical and doctoral students: Fei Wu (Ph.D. student), Annie Bell (Medical Student), Timothy Gressett (Medical and Ph.D. student), and Nithya Kasireddy (Ph.D. student), and their mentor is Dr. Binhua Ling, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Tulane School of Medicine and Tulane National Primate Research Center. 

Team GeneForward is grateful to receive the Alvarez Spark Innovation Award from the Taylor Center to fund our product development. We have spent the past year creating a rapid, reliable, and inexpensive platform for disease diagnosis that does not require the use of electricity. At first, our team had a completely different idea about what we were going to design and how it would look in practice, but over the past year, we have had several pivots in the design. One major “lightbulb” moment for us happened when we all completed the Changemaker Institute Accelerator (CI). This program is PHENOMENAL. To be honest, none of us have much business background, and we quickly learned that even if you have a great idea, if you don’t know how to implement it and develop a good business model, then the idea is just an idea. Through the CI program, we were able to really define our goals, mission, and vision and learn the skills to put our plan into action.

Fei in the lab testing our point-of-care technology

At the beginning, we decided to focus on point-of-care (POC) technology, which means patient diagnosis is right near the “point of care” (AKA the clinic or other setting in which they will be treated for their diagnosis). POC diagnostics are truly the future of medicine–the basic idea is that a patient will go into the doctor, be tested for a disease, and then get treatment all in the same visit. A good example of a point-of-care technology that is in current use is the rapid strep test. When you streamline diagnostics in this way, patients are more likely to be compliant and will actually complete their treatment, compared to the situation where a patient has to have a test and come back in a week to hear the results and be treated. There are so many opportunities for POC tests to be implemented for other diseases, and overall, streamlining diagnostics truly reduces the burden of disease.

Our point-of-care (POC) technology uses nucleic acid-based diagnosis of disease. The ideal point-of-care test is rapid, inexpensive, and specific for a disease. This year we spent time refining our technology to accomplish these goals. Of course, we have had quite a few bumps along the way. Our first target was sepsis, a systemic bacterial disease that affects millions of patients every year, and unfortunately, there isn’t a great way to detect it. The traditional “blood culture” method takes several days, and in the meantime, the doctors throw a cocktail of broad-spectrum antibiotics at the patient until they get the results and can identify the specific pathogen causing the disease. With the rise of antibiotic resistance worldwide, we thought this would be a good target.

However, as we consulted experts in several fields, including public health, infectious disease, and business, we realized our first mistake. After closely examining our disease target, we realized that we might be better off to explore other diseases. So, in January of 2019, we switched to focus on Ebola virus after speaking to Nigerian doctor and current Tulane Graduate student Adaora Okoli. Hearing of her remarkable experience being infected with the Ebola virus and surviving helped us realize the true burden of this disease and the opportunity for a rapid diagnostic test to relieve that burden. (Read her story here (! She is truly amazing and an inspiration to our team and the Tulane community.

There was a lot of unexpected learning that has come with this project–all of us have mostly scientific background, but the amount of business knowledge that we have had to learn has been very important. The concept of a LEAN canvas, marketing, branding was absolutely foreign to us, and luckily, we have had amazing mentors through the Taylor Center and the Tulane Novel Tech Challenge that have helped guide our team. These skills that we have acquired along the way, including public speaking, pitching our product, developing a business plan, and finding a good marketing strategy are monumental for our team. Without them, our device would be just an idea–now, we have been able to put our thoughts into action and make enormous strides to achieve our goals. The skills of business planning are so important for changemakers. When you are passionate about making an impact, the smaller things such as planning a budget, figuring out your place in the market, and forming a business model, can seem trivial. However, we have learned that to be a changemaker, you must have a good foundation and business plan so that you can make the largest impact possible. With this in mind, if you have an idea that you really want to put into action, I strongly recommend applying to the Changemaker Institute program. The team at the Taylor Center is extraordinary and will help you build the foundation for your business to succeed.

Currently, we are continuing to work on our device development; our device is unique because it is a platform for diagnostic disease. We plan on testing different targets as we refine the technology. Currently, we have been able to use it successfully to identify 2 targets, and with the funds from the Alvarez Spark Innovation Award, our team has been able to continue our prototype development so that we can achieve our goal to make it electricity-free. At this time, we are excited about using the MakerSpace at Tulane to craft a unique prototype using the 3D printers.

To the Taylor Center, thank you so much for giving our team this funding opportunity to improve the diagnosis of disease, in order to benefit those that need it the most.