Agricultural technology developed in Otago could play a role in helping manage disease in children in developing countries.

Techion's technology - better known for measuring parasites in livestock - is one of the diagnostic technologies being evaluated in a project bankrolled by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"For a little ag company in Dunedin to be doing this stuff, it's pretty cool,'' founder and managing director Greg Mirams said.

STARWORMS (STop Anthelmintic Resistant WORMS) is a global project researching drug efficacy and drug resistance in programmes aimed at eliminating and controlling intestinal parasites in people.


Techion's FECPAK G2 was one of the diagnostic technologies being evaluated in the $US2.5 million project which is run by a collaborative group of research partners led by Prof Bruno Levecke, from Belgium's Ghent University.

According to the World Health Organisation, intestinal parasites or worms affected more than 1.5 billion people or 24 per cent of the world's population.

The parasites lived in the intestines and, in children, could cause malnutrition, stunted growth, intellectual difficulties and cognitive deficits.

An image-based technology, FECPAK G2 enabled an operator to prepare a faecal sample for analysis in the field or clinic.

The image was uploaded via the internet and analysed for the presence of parasite eggs by a technician who could be located anywhere in the world, including Techion's Invermay lab.

The four-year programme of study would conclude in January 2020. Experience to date showed FECPAK G2 had the potential to solve some of the most important challenges for diagnoses of worms, Prof Levecke said in a statement.

Techion has trained community workers in Asia, Africa and South America to undertake the testing and assess the results. Photo / Supplied
Techion has trained community workers in Asia, Africa and South America to undertake the testing and assess the results. Photo / Supplied

It offered quality control and in the future, might allow for quicker sample processing.
"As the technology evolves, the digital system enables the potential for automated egg counting - an exciting possibility.

"The idea that a process that today requires human eyes might soon be performed by a software algorithm, speeding up sample analysis and allowing more samples to be processed each day will significantly reduce costs and make a real difference to the fight against parasites in children,'' he said.


The original FECPAK was developed in 1992 for farmers to measure parasites in livestock with a simple on-farm microscope-based test counting parasite eggs in animal faeces.

FECPAK G2 was developed as an online platform in 2014 in conjunction with the University of Otago, which then went on to be awarded a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenge Grant to explore the potential for it to be used as a human parasite diagnostic tool.

It was now being evaluated in the STARWORMS project to diagnose helminth infections in people in Africa, Asia and South America.

Mr Mirams said it was "wonderful'' the company's technology might contribute to solving one of the world's biggest causes of childhood morbidity.

"It's been a fascinating experience to see the 20 years of work we have done in livestock transferring into human disease management.''

The principles for faecal testing in animals were very similar to those for people.

A lot more was known about parasites in sheep and cattle than in humans and now the world was starting to understand that there might be some tools in agriculture that could be very useful, he said.

Working with the foundation had been an "amazing'' experience, as Mr Mirams found himself sitting in meetings such as in the United Nations.

Techion was working with the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute which was also evaluating FECPAK G2 technology.

The company's team continued to grow and it was becoming a medium-sized business.

Being based at Invermay and having the facilities the agricultural research site afforded had been a part of being able to do what it was doing, he said.