Bill Thies, the 2016 MacArthur Fellow, in Bangalore G.S. Mudur
New Delhi, Sept. 23: An American computer scientist in Bangalore who is trying to harness phone calls to improve tuberculosis treatment and two US-based IIT alumni are among 23 "extraordinary individuals" named on Thursday by the US-based MacArthur Foundation as its 2016 fellows.
Bill Thies, a US scientist working with Microsoft Research India in Bangalore, has while pursuing other projects developed a phone-based solution to ensure improved adherence by patients to the six-month course of TB treatment.
The MacArthur fellows, selected for their "exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement and manifest promise for important future advances", include a human rights lawyer, a financial services innovator, a microbiologist, a sculptor and a theatre artist.
"While our communities, our nation, and our world face both historic and emerging challenges, these 23 extraordinary individuals give us ample reason for hope. They are breaking new ground in areas of public concern, in arts and in the sciences, often in unexpected ways," Julie Stasch, the foundation's president, said in a statement.
The fellows include Manu Prakash, an IIT Kanpur alumnus now at Stanford University, who has developed a low-cost, sticker-like microfluidic chip that may be used to improve surveillance for mosquito-borne diseases.
Also on the list is computer scientist Subhash Khot, an IIT Bombay alumnus now at New York University, who is addressing unresolved problems in computational complexity.
Thies joined Microsoft Research's technologies for emerging markets group in Bangalore in December 2008, about two months ahead of completing his PhD in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I wanted to work in India, to see how technology could make a difference in the quality of life for low-income communities," Thies told The Telegraph over the phone.
Over the past eight years, Thies has helped develop low-cost technologies for education, including a mobile application that automatically detects and aggregates student responses using computer vision and an interactive tool that helps translate educational videos into local languages.
He has also helped develop a voice portal for citizen news journalism that allows members of local communities to "complain" about issues from the lack of subsidised farm fertilisers to the absence of nurses in government health clinics.
For now, Thies appears most excited about his initiative to improve patients' adherence to TB treatment through an innovation involving phone calls. Government guidelines for TB treatment require patients to visit a clinic where they are given pills and observed to swallow them.
Such "directly observed" therapy is considered crucial to curbing the emergence of drug-resistant TB, which requires treatment to last at least six months. But many patients have been known to stop taking their drugs within three to four weeks once their TB symptoms disappear.
Thies's solution is called 99DOTS and involves packaging anti-TB pills in custom-made envelopes with a series of hidden numbers below each pill. Each time a patient swallows a pill, a hidden number that the patient cannot possibly guess is revealed.
This number "completes" a phone number, whose first part is printed on the envelope. The patient makes a free call to the completed number, which alerts a healthcare provider that the patient has taken the required dose.
Such a technology-driven solution would allow healthcare providers to track patients' adherence to treatment without asking the patients to visit clinics, Thies said. The proposal has been tested at about 30 sites and on about 3,000 patients in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Maharashtra.
"We're in discussion with (health) authorities about scaling this up in other states," Thies said.
Each MacArthur fellow receives $625,000 over a five-year period. The foundation says the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award. "We are looking for individuals on the precipice of great discovery or a game-changing idea," the foundation says.