A team led by the University of Queensland has created a quick, needle-free malaria detection tool that has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives each year.
Usually, a blood test is used to detect malaria, but researchers have developed a technique that uses a device that shines a beam of safe infrared light on a person’s finger or ear for five to ten seconds. This method collects an infrared signature that is then analyzed by a computer algorithm.
Dr. Maggy Lord, the international team leader from the School of Biological Sciences at University of Queensland, stated that the technology would completely alter how malaria is tackled worldwide.
Currently it is incredibly challenging to test large groups of people, such as the population of a village or town—you have to take blood from everyone and mix it with a reagent to get a result. But with this tool we can find out very quickly whether a whole village or town is suffering from, or carrying, malaria.
Dr. Maggy Lord, Amplify Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Queensland
She continued, “The technique is chemical-free, needle-free and detects malaria through the skin using infrared-light—it is literally just a flash on a person’s skin and it is done. The device is smart-phone operated, so results are acquired in real time.”
The technology, according to the researchers, is the first step in getting rid of malaria.
Dr. Lord added, “According to the World Health Organization malaria report, in 2020 there were an estimated 241 million cases worldwide and more than 600,000 died from malaria. Most of the cases are in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 per cent of deaths are children under five years old. The biggest challenge in eliminating the disease is the presence of asymptomatic people in a population who act as a reservoir for transmission by mosquitos.”
She continued, “The World Health Organization has proposed large-scale surveillance in endemic areas and this non-invasive, affordable, and rapid tool offers a way to achieve that.”
Additionally, the technology might be used to fight other illnesses.
“We have successfully used this technology on mosquitoes to non-invasively detect infections such as malaria, Zika, and dengue. In our post-COVID world, it could be used to better tackle diseases as people move around the globe. We hope the tool could be used at ports of entry to screen travelers, minimizing the re-introduction of diseases and reducing global outbreaks,” Dr. Lord stated.
She concluded, “It is still early days, but this proof-of-concept is exciting.”
PNAS Nexus published the research.
The Instituto Oswaldo Cruz in Brazil, under the direction of Dr. Rafael Maciel de Freitas, used the tool to identify malaria in patients in the Amazon region. UQ worked with them on this project.
The work was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship, the Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento Cientfico e Tecnológico, Fundaço Carlos Chagas Filho de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, and Fiocruz INOVA Ideias Inovadoras.
Garcia, G. A., et al. (2022) Malaria absorption peaks acquired through the skin of patients with infrared light can detect patients with varying parasitemia. PNAS Nexus. doi:10.1093/pnasnexus/pgac272