Scientists in the UK have been developing a new method of malaria diagnosis that's so easy it requires little more than a Springer spaniel and a pair of well-used socks.
The new project, presented this week at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting, has shown how dogs can be trained to sniff out the scent of malaria. It’s still early days for the research, but those working on the project hope their study could be used to develop a rapid and non-invasive test for the disease, which continues to kill nearly half a million people worldwide each year.
Dogs, equipped with their hyper-sensitive snoot, can detect the presence of the molecular signature of malaria. As Wired points out, the scientists on the project are not exactly sure where this molecular change is actually coming from. It could be from the parasite itself or perhaps the body’s reaction to the parasite. Similarly, a handful of other studies have shown that dogs can hound out diseases like cancer by detecting the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with certain cancers in the breath or urine of people with the disease.
Whatever it is, these trained pups are surprisingly effective at sniffing it out.
Their trials found that dogs were able to correctly identify 70 percent of the malaria-infected samples. The dogs could also detect which samples did not contain malaria with 90 percent accuracy.
“While our findings are at an early stage, in principle, we have shown that dogs could be trained to detect malaria infected people by their odour with a credible degree of accuracy,” Principal Investigator Professor Steve Lindsay, from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University in the UK, said in a statement.
The research was carried out by Durham University and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They reached their findings by training a number of dogs in the UK to identify the presence of malaria. They then tested out these new-found skills on sock samples gathered from 175 children – 30 malaria positive and 145 uninfected – aged five to 14 in the Upper River Region of The Gambia in West Africa.
The most viable application of this work, according to the researchers, would see sniffer dogs deployed at airports to stop malaria spreading between countries by infected people who are perhaps not displaying obvious symptoms yet.
“This could help prevent the spread of malaria to countries that have been declared malaria-free and also ensure that people, many of whom might be unaware that they are infected with the malaria parasite, receive antimalarial drug treatment for the disease,” added Professor Lindsay.
Co-author Professor James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, noted: “Worryingly, our progress on the control of malaria has stalled in recent years, so we desperately need innovative new tools to help in the fight against malaria. Our results show that sniffer dogs could be a serious way of making diagnosis of people who don’t show any symptoms, but are still infectious, quicker and easier."