J-WAFS in action: A wearable testing kit to check for E. coli in water

Jeffrey Ravel, Professor and Head of the MIT History Faculty, and Susan Murcott, an environmental engineer and Lecturer in MIT’s D-Lab, are leading a project to develop and market simple, low-cost kits to test for the presence of E. coli in drinking water. The initial focus is on communities in Nepal, with a medium-term goal of distributing the kits in other markets.

Opening Doors spoke to Jeffrey (JR) and Susan (SM) about the project and its aims.

Q. What is the title of your research project?

JR: The project is called “Manufacturing and marketing E. coli test kits to promote safely managed drinking water and improved public health in Nepal.”

Q. What issue are you seeking to address?

SM: To provide some context, one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals was around access to “improved” water.

It’s important to understand, however, that the term “improved” refers to the infrastructure that delivers the water – like a household connection, a public standpipe, a borehole or a protected well – not the quality or safety of the water.  So in India, for example, there are five hours of piped water supply a day, on average, but that doesn’t mean the water is safe to drink.  The only way to determine water safety is to test it.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals took this ambition one step further and set a target to improve access to “safely managed drinking water” by 2030.

One of the criteria that defines water safety is whether it has been tested for E. coli.

 
That’s where our project to produce and distribute a simple, low-cost E. coli test fits into the global picture.

There are already other kits that perform a similar task, but for one reason or another, they are not always suitable for different contexts, such as remote off-grid locations that don’t necessarily have electricity or high-quality testing labs. Some of the reasons for this include portability, complexity, cost, ease of use, accuracy and so forth.

Our kit is designed to overcome these challenges by being portable, low cost at under at most US$ 1 per test, easy to use and highly accurate.

Q. In simple terms, can you briefly describe your proposed solution?

SM: The testing kit actually performs two tests.  One is a simple presence/absence test for E. coli.  It simply tells you if there is E. coli present in the water or not.  The second element is a quantitative test, which gives us much wider information on the nature of any water contamination.

JR: The really innovative bit of our kit, though, is the body belt incubator.  Once the water has been mixed with the test, the phials are incubated in a special body belt incubator that users wear for 24 hours.  The users’ body heat provides the heat required for the chemical process of the testing.  This means you don’t need to rely on an external power source to test the safety of the water. It can literally be done anywhere.

SM: That’s right. The tests themselves are not new.  The innovation is in bringing together these existing elements into a wearable, low-cost testing kit and then, crucially, distributing it to the regions in Nepal where water safety is a priority issue.

 

Q. What are your priorities over the next 12 months?

JR: Our project is called “Manufacturing and Marketing E. coli Kits in Nepal”, so a big part of it is to figure out how to manufacture the kits and get that price point down below US$ 1 per test.

The other part is to figure out the marketing strategy – which communities, what kind of packaging, and so on.  The market for these kits could range from individual consumers and private groups to NGOs and government entities.  We need to think about those different constituencies and their differing needs as part of the marketing strategy.

Q. Are your kits aimed at individuals, or at the village and community level?

SM: The aim is that anybody can use the kit and do the tests.  If you want further verification, if you found out your well was contaminated, you could tell your local government official and hopefully, they would do some further testing.

Q. Are the kits suitable for use in other environments, or just in Nepal?

JR: That’s another of the issues we plan to look at – the durability and versatility of the kit.  Nepal has a great deal of geographic diversity.  One of the things that we hope to address with the J-WAFS grant is to send prototype kits to communities in different parts of the country, from the foothills of the Himalayas down to the sea-level tropical climate of the southern part of the country, to test both the durability of the kit, the packaging materials, and the chemicals within the tests themselves.  We’ll start in Nepal and move into Bangladesh next year, we hope, and then out from there into the wider South Asia region.

Q. How will J-WAFS funding enable you to take your research further?

SM: Until now, we’ve been putting the kits together ourselves on pretty much an ad hoc basis.  In 2016, we shipped 2,000 of them to Nepal for the Nepali non-governmental organization, Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO), to test water found in food trucks and mobile water tanks in the Kathmandu Valley in the wake of the April 2015 earthquake.  They proved highly effective in testing for the presence of E. coli.

Following this success, the J-WAFS Solutions grant will enable us to partner with ENPHO and its business subsidiary EcoConcern, to refine the design of the kits based on feedback from users in Kathmandu and my subsequent work on kit design and application in Ghana, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Once the design is complete, we intend to partner with MIT’s Sloan School of Management and with MIT’s Technology and Policy Program to develop an economically feasible production plan for manufacturing the kits, and a sales plan to commercialize them and bring them to market.  So, there are a lot of elements to what we’re hoping to accomplish over the next 12 months, and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the funding from J-WAFS.

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