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  • I'm here today to share with you

  • an extraordinary journey -

  • extraordinarily rewarding journey, actually -

  • which brought me into

  • training rats

  • to save human lives

  • by detecting landmines

  • and tuberculosis.

  • As a child, I had two passions.

  • One was a passion for rodents.

  • I had all kinds of rats,

  • mice, hamsters,

  • gerbils, squirrels.

  • You name it, I bred it, and I sold them to pet shops.

  • (Laughter)

  • I also had a passion for Africa.

  • Growing up in a multicultural environment,

  • we had African students in the house,

  • and I learned about their stories,

  • so different backgrounds,

  • dependency on imported know-how,

  • goods, services,

  • exuberant cultural diversity.

  • Africa was truly fascinating for me.

  • I became an industrial engineer,

  • engineer in product development,

  • and I focused on appropriate detection technologies,

  • actually the first appropriate technologies

  • for developing countries.

  • I started working in the industry,

  • but I wasn't really happy to contribute

  • to a material consumer society

  • in a linear, extracting

  • and manufacturing mode.

  • I quit my job to focus on the real world problem:

  • landmines.

  • We're talking '95 now.

  • Princess Diana is announcing on TV

  • that landmines form a structural barrier

  • to any development, which is really true.

  • As long as these devices are there,

  • or there is suspicion of landmines,

  • you can't really enter into the land.

  • Actually, there was an appeal worldwide

  • for new detectors

  • sustainable in the environments

  • where they're needed to produce,

  • which is mainly in the developing world.

  • We chose rats.

  • Why would you choose rats?

  • Because, aren't they vermin?

  • Well, actually rats are,

  • in contrary to what most people think about them,

  • rats are highly sociable creatures.

  • And actually, our product -- what you see here.

  • There's a target somewhere here.

  • You see an operator, a trained African

  • with his rats in front

  • who actually are left and right.

  • There, the animal finds a mine.

  • It scratches on the soil.

  • And the animal comes back for a food reward.

  • Very, very simple.

  • Very sustainable in this environment.

  • Here, the animal gets its food reward.

  • And that's how it works.

  • Very, very simple.

  • Now why would you use rats?

  • Rats have been used since the '50s last century,

  • in all kinds of experiments.

  • Rats have more genetic material

  • allocated to olfaction

  • than any other mammal species.

  • They're extremely sensitive to smell.

  • Moreover, they have the mechanisms to map all these smells

  • and to communicate about it.

  • Now how do we communicate with rats?

  • Well don't talk rat,

  • but we have a clicker,

  • a standard method for animal training,

  • which you see there.

  • A clicker, which makes a particular sound

  • with which you can reinforce particular behaviors.

  • First of all, we associate the click sound with a food reward,

  • which is smashed banana and peanuts together in a syringe.

  • Once the animal knows click, food,

  • click, food, click, food --

  • so click is food --

  • we bring it in a cage with a hole,

  • and actually the animal learns

  • to stick the nose in the hole

  • under which a target scent is placed,

  • and to do that for five seconds --

  • five seconds, which is long for a rat.

  • Once the animal knows this, we make the task a bit more difficult.

  • It learns how to find the target smell

  • in a cage with several holes, up to 10 holes.

  • Then the animal learns

  • to walk on a leash in the open

  • and find targets.

  • In the next step, animals learn

  • to find real mines in real minefields.

  • They are tested and accredited

  • according to International Mine Action Standards,

  • just like dogs have to pass a test.

  • This consists of 400 square meters.

  • There's a number of mines

  • placed blindly,

  • and the team of trainer and their rat

  • have to find all the targets.

  • If the animal does that, it gets a license

  • as an accredited animal

  • to be operational in the field --

  • just like dogs, by the way.

  • Maybe one slight difference:

  • we can train rats at a fifth of the price

  • of training the mining dog.

  • This is our team in Mozambique:

  • one Tanzanian trainer,

  • who transfers the skills

  • to these three Mozambican fellows.

  • And you should see the pride in the eyes of these people.

  • They have a skill,

  • which makes them much less dependent

  • on foreign aid.

  • Moreover, this small team

  • together with, of course, you need the heavy vehicles

  • and the manual de-miners to follow-up.

  • But with this small investment in a rat capacity,

  • we have demonstrated in Mozambique

  • that we can reduce the cost-price per square meter

  • up to 60 percent

  • of what is currently normal --

  • two dollars per square meter, we do it at $1.18,

  • and we can still bring that price down.

  • Question of scale.

  • If you can bring in more rats,

  • we can actually make the output even bigger.

  • We have a demonstration site in Mozambique.

  • Eleven African governments

  • have seen that they can become less dependent

  • by using this technology.

  • They have signed the pact for peace

  • and treaty in the Great Lakes region,

  • and they endorse hero rats

  • to clear their common borders of landmines.

  • But let me bring you to a very different problem.

  • And there's about 6,000 people last year

  • that walked on a landmine,

  • but worldwide last year,

  • almost 1.9 million died from tuberculosis

  • as a first cause of infection.

  • Especially in Africa

  • where T.B. and HIV are strongly linked,

  • there is a huge common problem.

  • Microscopy, the standard WHO procedure,

  • reaches from 40 to 60 percent reliability.

  • In Tanzania -- the numbers don't lie --

  • 45 percent of people -- T.B. patients --

  • get diagnosed with T.B. before they die.

  • It means that, if you have T.B.,

  • you have more chance that you won't be detected,

  • but will just die from T.B. secondary infections and so on.

  • And if, however,

  • you are detected very early, diagnosed early,

  • treatment can start,

  • and even in HIV-positives, it makes sense.

  • You can actually cure T.B.,

  • even in HIV-positives.

  • So in our common language, Dutch,

  • the name for T.B.

  • is "tering,"

  • which, etymologically,

  • refers to the smell of tar.

  • Already the old Chinese

  • and the Greek, Hippocrates,

  • have actually published,

  • documented, that T.B. can be diagnosed

  • based on the volatiles

  • exuding from patients.

  • So what we did is we collected some samples --

  • just as a way of testing --

  • from hospitals,

  • trained rats on them

  • and see if this works,

  • and wonder, well,

  • we can reach 89 percent sensitivity,

  • 86 percent specificity

  • using multiple rats in a row.

  • This is how it works,

  • and really, this is a generic technology.

  • We're talking now explosives, tuberculosis,

  • but can you imagine,

  • you can actually put anything under there.

  • So how does it work?

  • You have a cassette with 10 samples.

  • You put these 10 samples at once in the cage.

  • An animal only needs two hundredths of a second

  • to discriminate the scent, so it goes extremely fast.

  • Here it's already at the third sample.

  • This is a positive sample.

  • It gets a click sound and comes for the food reward.

  • And by doing so, very fast,

  • we can have like a second-line opinion

  • to see which patients are positive,

  • which are negative.

  • Just as an indication,

  • whereas a microscopist can process

  • 40 samples in a day,

  • a rat can process

  • the same amount of samples

  • in seven minutes only.

  • A cage like this --

  • (Applause)

  • A cage like this -- provided that you have rats,

  • and we have now currently

  • 25 tuberculosis rats --

  • a cage like this, operating throughout the day,

  • can process 1,680 samples.

  • Can you imagine the potential offspring applications --

  • environmental detection

  • of pollutants in soils,

  • customs applications,

  • detection of illicit goods in containers and so on.

  • But let's stick first to tuberculosis.

  • I just want to briefly highlight,

  • the blue rods

  • are the scores of microscopy only

  • at the five clinics in Dar es Salaam

  • on a population of 500,000 people,

  • where 15,000 reported to get a test done.

  • Microscopy for 1,800 patients.

  • And by just presenting the samples once more to the rats

  • and looping those results back,

  • we were able to increase case detection rates

  • by over 30 percent.

  • Throughout last year,

  • we've been -- depending on which intervals you take --

  • we've been consistently

  • increasing case detection rates

  • in five hospitals in Dar es Salaam

  • between 30 and 40 percent.

  • So this is really considerable.

  • Knowing that a missed patient by microscopy

  • infects up to 15 people,

  • healthy people, per year,

  • you can be sure

  • that we have saved lots of lives.

  • At least our hero rats have saved lots of lives.

  • The way forward for us

  • is now to standardize this technology.

  • And there are simple things

  • like, for instance, we have a small laser in the sniffer hole

  • where the animal has to stick for five seconds.

  • So, to standardize this.

  • Also, to standardize the pellets,

  • the food rewards,

  • and to semi-automate this

  • in order to replicate this on a much larger scale

  • and affect the lives of many more people.

  • To conclude, there are also other applications at the horizon.

  • Here is a first prototype

  • of our camera rat,

  • which is a rat with a rat backpack

  • with a camera that can go under rubble

  • to detect for victims

  • after earthquake and so on.