Malaria-Detecting Breathalyzer Could Be An Early Diagnosis Breakthrough

Close up view of the tiger mosquito Aedes albopictus, one of the little idiots responsible for transmitting Aedes, Malaria and Zika disease. KeongDaGreat/Shutterstock

While the world is slowly but surely giving malaria the boot, there’s still much more work to be done before we can relegate it to the likes of smallpox. Early, easy, and accurate diagnosis is a key part of that.

Scientists have recently revealed their progress making a new breath test that could detect malaria and so far it's looking good. Researchers from Washington University in St Louis presented their findings at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Annual Meeting this week, as reported by News Medical.

The “malaria breathalyzer” picks up on a previous breakthrough that found people with malaria have distinctive chemical compounds in their breath. Remarkably, some studies have speculated that mosquitoes might actively alter the molecular content of their victim’s breath as a chemical cue to alert other mosquitos and help the malaria parasite spread further.

Even in 2015, these chemical were only detectable using very expensive, laboratory-based instruments. At the conference this week, the scientists reported how they have been testing out a simple hand-held prototype breathalyzer in Lilongwe, Malawi.

So far, the work has only used very small sample sizes, but the results have been promising. They tested the breathalyzer out on 35 feverish children, some with and some without malaria. The children simply provided a sample by blowing into a balloon-like bag. It was able to accurately diagnosis the child with an 83 percent success rate (29 out of 35 children). Much more work is needed, however, so far, so good.

“Possibly, breath tests could become a low-skill, low-cost alternative for rural and under-resourced communities,” Chad Schaber, a PhD student working on the project, told Infectious Disease News. “The largest advantage of a breath test is that it would not require a blood sample. This makes it especially attractive for use in screening populations, for example at border crossings, to maintain gains in malaria elimination.”

The latest statistics from the World Health Organization says there were 212 million new cases of malaria worldwide and approximately 429 000 malaria deaths in 2015, both overwhelmingly occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nevertheless, progress has been outstanding. Between 2010 and 2015, there was a 21 percent decrease in new malaria cases and 29 percent decreases in deaths from malaria. Bill Gates, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given hundreds of millions of dollars to the cause, recently said we could see the last case of malaria “in our lifetimes.”

“The malaria parasite has been outwitting human interventions for thousands of years,” said Patricia Walker, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, which is hosting the conference. “We need innovative collaborations between biologists and ­engineers to develop new tools that give us the upper hand.”

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