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Tej Vaddi '17 Develops Diagnostic for Sickle Cell Disease

Interview by Teresa Messmore, Director of Communications and Marketing

Tej was also profiled in The News Journal on 2/24/2017

After traveling to Africa with his father for a medical conference, Tej Vaddi ‘17 learned that the diagnosis and treatment of sickle cell disease is a challenge in sub-Saharan African countries. He is developing a patented skin-prick test for simpler, cost-effective diagnosis at birth.
What inspired you to create a test for sickle cell disease?
In the summer before 8th Grade, my dad and his colleague were giving a talk about CML, a type of leukemia, in Kenya and Tanzania. My dad asked me if I wanted to go and hear what they were saying—and he said he would take me on a safari—so I was pretty interested. The talk was mainly for physicians, and I was able to talk to them. They said that sickle cell disease is something they have to treat the most, because in sub-Saharan African countries it’s really prevalent. The way that a person gets it is if you have two alleles from each parent that are both sickled, then you have sickle cell disease. Those people who have sickle cell disease don’t get malaria, and malaria was so prevalent there historically, that this was like a natural defense. But then it has its own terrible consequences.
How would you describe your project?
It’s kind of like a pregnancy test, in that there’s a place where you put some of the sample, which is blood. You put a drop of blood on it, and then it runs onto a pad. On the pad there are some antibodies that can detect if the hemoglobin in the blood is sickled or not. If it’s sickled, it binds to the antibodies. Then you’d see a line because they’re tagged to gold, which is a red color.
How did you figure out how to make the test?
The technology has been in use for 30 years or so, and it came into prevalence with the pregnancy test. There is a company in Claymont, Delaware, called CD Diagnostics, which specializes only in lateral flow immunoassay. So we talked to some of the people who work there, and we asked them if we could use their lab space and if one of the people who was there could guide us a little bit in the beginning. Then we got antibodies, and we tested different ones.
In the U.S., doctors take a sample of blood, look at it under a microscope and do some detailed blood testing when you’re born. But in sub-Saharan African countries, they typically don’t do any tests until you show signs of sickle cell disease—they just don’t have the health infrastructure to do it routinely—and then they would examine your blood. So I wanted to create a device that could be used by anyone right after birth. It comes as an entire kit, and all you have to do is take some of their blood—like a heel prick—and then you dilute it in the solution that we give, and then you take a drop of blood put it on the test.
Have you encountered any difficulties during the project, and how did you tackle them?
I think the biggest part of the project was finding the right antibodies, because the technology itself is pretty simple, and creating the test is simple enough if you have the right antibodies. So our biggest challenge was finding the right antibodies because there are so many antibodies out there. You have to kind of target antibodies that are specific to the location where the mutation is at with the hemoglobin. It’s kind of lucky if you find it, so we had to screen a ton of antibodies until we found one that worked with a certain amount of accuracy.
This past summer, Ryan Cleary ‘15 and I worked like every day, five days a week for 40 hours a week. And the previous summer I did it for one month, using my dad’s lab space at UD.
What do you hope to do with your project?
My final goal is to implement it in low-resource, sub-Saharan African countries. I think that’s our long-term product goal. But I guess short term, we want to work with Nemours Hospital, because they have a pretty strong sickle cell program and they see a lot of patients who have sickle cell disease. The closest we’ve had to fetal blood to test our product is we’ve had a sample shipped from Ohio State, but they just came in vials. If we could do more of a live situation, I think that would definitely help.
What else do you do at Tower Hill?
I started the Entrepreneurial Club, and I play lacrosse and football. I’m also in Young Democrats; I enjoy doing that.
What does innovation mean to you?
I think people make it out to be a lot more than it is. It’s just finding a simpler solution to bigger problems; that’s what innovation is to me. It could be the most complex thing, but in the end, if you try to find something simple, it’s just way easier.