Powerful new weapon developed to tackle scourge of malaria

24 May 2018

Image: tskstock/Shutterstock

Malaria remains one of the most devastating diseases on the planet, but a new device could help those in dire need get diagnosed much faster than before.

All along and on either side of the equator, millions of people are at risk of being bitten by a mosquito infected with malaria, despite our best efforts to stop the disease in its tracks.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), as many as 216m people were infected with the disease in 2016, of which nearly half a million died.

As is the case with many deadly diseases, the earlier it is found, the better hope there is for the patient.

However, in some of the most remote parts of the world, an early diagnosis is simply not possible because accurate testing kits aren’t available in a small enough size to be portable.

Of the two standard testing kits available, the first involves simply taking a blood sample and counting the number of damaged red blood cells, which can be time-consuming; while the second rapid diagnostic test can have its results spoiled quite quickly without refrigeration.

So, it is welcome news that a team of researchers from the University of Southern California has announced the development of a prototype device capable of early-stage malaria detection.

‘A very simple design concept’

The portable optical diagnostics systems (PODS) works by detecting a byproduct generated by all species of the malaria parasite, allowing for the rapid screening for all malaria strains.

Weighing less than 4.5kg, the device is no bigger than a shoebox and can be powered by a battery for eight hours. It has the added advantage of being designed to require minimal sample processing and handling, while also eliminating the need for secondary chemicals with strict storage requirements. This makes the device particularly suited to low-resource environments.

Scientifically, the device detects hemozoin in the blood, the harmful byproduct created after the malaria virus releases heme during its feasting on haemoglobin in the person’s red blood cells. Because the amount of hemozoin in the blood is directly related to how far the malaria infection has progressed, it is an ideal indicator of infection.

“PODS operates on a very simple design concept. If there is hemozoin, then there must be malaria,” said Andrea Armani of the research team.

“The challenging part was distinguishing the tiny hemozoin nanoparticles from everything else in the whole blood sample.”

The researchers are now working on the next generation of the device to improve its ruggedness and further reduce the sample volume to under 200 μL of blood – equating to about one or two drops – while improving its battery life to 30 hours.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic