Asiedu Wins Prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize

May 7, 2019

Biomedical engineering doctoral student Mercy Asiedu was recognized for her work involving an easy-to-use diagnostic device for cervical cancer

Mercy Asiedu and the Callascope

Mercy Asiedu and the Callascope

Mercy Asiedu has received a 2019 Lemelson-MIT Graduate Student Prize, a prestigious award that recognizes young inventors who have dedicated themselves to solving global problems. Asiedu, a fifth-year PhD candidate in Nimmi Ramanujam’s lab in Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, was selected from nearly 120 applicants for her impactful work developing revolutionary, patented diagnostic tools for cervical cancer. She received the “Cure it!” prize, which rewards students working on technology-based health care inventions. Earlier this semester, Asiedu was also awarded a $100,000 2019 Schmidt Science Fellowship to pursue post-doctoral research focused on machine-learning algorithms for improved medical diagnostics.

Cervical cancer affects more than half a million women worldwide each year, and over half of these women ultimately die from the disease. The majority of deaths occur in low and middle-income countries.  But unlike other types of cancer, cervical cancer can be prevented through various interventions, including a vaccine and routine cervical exams.  Visual inspection of the cervix with the naked or eye or with imaging devices called colposcope are used to examine the vagina and cervix for any signs of cancer.

Traditional colposcopes are bulky magnifying devices that require use of a speculum to spread the vaginal walls before clinicians can visually check for signs of cancer. Although these tools are effective, they are very expensive, and often uncomfortable for women.

During her PhD studies, Asiedu has been helping design and prototype the Pocket Colposcope, a compact tool shaped like a tampon and packing the performance of a high-end colposcope. It can enable health care workers in resource-limited areas to both screen for and diagnose cervical cancer without expensive imaging equipment. She has also developed the Callascope, a smaller version of the Pocket Colposcope, which removes the need for a speculum and enables self-screening, eliminating an uncomfortable and sometimes painful part of the cervical exam.

Rather than visualize the cervix from outside the speculum, like traditional colposcopes, the Callascope can be inserted directly into the vagina using a mechanical introducer shaped like a calla lily that can expand the vaginal walls and allow for accurate visualization. This proximity enables a magnified view of the cervix with a consumer-grade light source and camera, making it less expensive and lighter than a clinical colposcope. The device can also be connected to a smartphone, tablet or computer.

To supplement these exam tools, Asiedu also developed a machine-learning based algorithm to help automate classification and identification of normal and pre-cancerous tissue in the cervix. This algorithm, Asiedu says, has the potential to enable automated expert-level diagnosis of cervical pre-cancer in point-of-care settings.

“I am so grateful to the Lemelson-MIT organizers for this prestigious award,” says Asiedu. “It means a lot when research that is so meaningful and important to you is recognized as necessary on a larger scale. I am grateful to my academic supervisor, Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, labmates, collaborators and everyone who has supported the development of this technology. We hope that very soon it will contribute on a global scale to enabling self-testing for cervical cancer screening.”

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is meant to serve as a catalyst for burgeoning inventors, and prizes are awarded annually to undergraduate teams and individual graduate students. The award aims to expose winners to technology, engineering, science, business and investment communities. Graduate students who receive the award win $15,000 in prize money, with the option of using the funding to continue to develop their inventions.

The awards will be made at EurekaFest, held June 19-21, 2019 at MIT. To learn more about the award, visit https://lemelson.mit.edu/studentprize

Check out the Lemelson-MIT video below to learn more about Mercy and her research: