Lack of medical facilities in remote areas is one of the largest causes of death in the world. Diagnosis can be as much of an obstacle as treatment, but a new kit designed to be used without highly trained staff or even electricity could make a major dent in this death rate, while having a surprising spin-off use for farmers.
Malaria testing currently requires trained staff in a well-stocked laboratory. Getting blood samples to and from these sites, which by their nature are only located in large cities, is expensive and wastes precious time.
Dr Apostolos Alissandratos of the Australian National University is seeking something far more portable, and his proof-of-concept success for malaria diagnosis has been rewarded with $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Alissandratos explained to IFLScience the test targets small, distinctive sections of DNA. “We are able to generate all the components necessary through a simple method akin to a fermentation,” he said in a statement.
E. coli bacteria are engineered to produce the biochemical reagents needed to produce multiple copies of small samples of DNA and identify a particular target. These reagents are freeze-dried to make a stable powder that doesn’t need refrigeration, overcoming a major obstacle for medical technologies that need to go where electricity is scarce or unreliable. A few drops of water turn the powder into a test kit.
Identifying the malaria parasite is a priority for the Gates Foundation, but Alissandratos said; “We can target any type of DNA from any type of organism.” The team are also exploring tests based on the same principle for tuberculosis, a rising problem in Australia’s remote indigenous communities.
The work isn’t restricted to human pathogens, either. Alissandratos explained that other targets being investigated include cattle and poultry diseases. Portable tests for these would save farmers a lot of money and heartache, particularly in places like Australia that are constantly on the lookout for diseases that plague livestock in the rest of the world but haven’t yet become locally established.
Currently the test works on a pathogen-by-pathogen basis, producing a distinctive color if the target is present. Eventually, Alissandratos told IFLScience, the aim is “multiplexing”, where a single kit will identify, and distinguish between, several different diseases that threaten a specific remote population.
Earlier stages of the work have been published in ACS Chemical Biology, and Alissandratos anticipates the Gates Foundation money will make possible the production of the first working kits for malaria within 18 months.
Swift identification of disease is often the difference between life and death for sick individuals, particularly children. Moreover, the tests could be transformative for overstretched public health operations, alerting them to transmissible disease outbreaks before they really take hold.