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Ugandan microscopic diagnosis project wins Google’s Shs 5.58bn grant

ICT permanent secretary Dr Aminah Zawedde (L) and the principal investigator Dr Rose Nakasi

ICT permanent secretary Dr Aminah Zawedde (L) and the principal investigator Dr Rose Nakasi

Google.com, the philanthropic arm of Google, has given a research grant and additional support of $1.5 million (about Shs 5.58 billion) to a Makerere University research project seeking to improve the efficiency and scale of microscopic diagnostics in Uganda.

The project, known as Ocular, is managed under the Makerere University Artificial Intelligence Lab. It is a partnership of Makerere and Mulago national referral hospital. The project uses artificial intelligence for automated mobile microscopic diagnosis of malaria, cervical cancer and tuberculosis, and will add more diseases in future, such as sickle cells, intestinal parasites and anaemia.

Dr Rose Nakasi, the principal investigator, explained that the project attaches a smartphone onto the ocular (eyepiece of a microscope) to take many photos of the test sample.

The photos are then sent to an artificial intelligence laboratory to do analysis. She touched on some of the advantages of the project, such as ease of sharing the photos and analysis; removing the physical strain that laboratory technicians often suffer; increasing the number of patients that can be diagnosed in a specific time; and advancing the teaching of microscopy and diagnostics.

The standard operating procedures in Ugandan medical facilities is a maximum of 20 microscopic diagnoses per day per technician. Nakasi, who downloaded and filled the 80-page application form, said the project increases the number of samples a technician can look at by 25 percent, and reduces the screening time by 80 percent.

Tonny Oyana, the principal of College of Computing and Information Sciences (CoCIS), said the research will have social impact by its raising of efficiency in health outcomes using low technology.

He said the funding from Google will help a lot to scale up the project in different pilot hospitals. He said Makerere was one out of 15 organisations that won the tight competition to benefit from the $25 million philanthropy challenge that assesses a project’s potential to contribute to attainment of the UN sustainable development goals.

Engineer Bainomugisha, head of department of Computer Science, said the college started specializing in artificial intelligence (especially for health and agriculture), data science and cyber security in 2009. He added that Google has a strategic partnership agreement with Makerere University, and that it has already invested $5 million in CoCIS alone since 2018.

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