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Rapid Non-Invasive Detection of Malaria-Infected Individuals

A rapid, inexpensive, non-invasive screening technology could assist in hastening the process of eradicating malaria, one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, according to experts who created it.

Rapid Non-Invasive Detection of Malaria-Infected Individuals
A smartphone-operated spectrometer has been developed to detect changes in the blood caused by malaria. Image Credit: University of Queensland.

The WHO’s worldwide technical malaria plan 2016–2030 seeks to lower malaria incidence and fatality rates by at least 75% by 2025 and at least 90% by 2030 compared to a 2015 baseline.

However, malaria case incidence and mortality are off by 48%. According to Abdisalan Noor, chief of the WHO Global Malaria Programme’s Strategic Information for Response Unit, the globe will be 88% off track in meeting malaria targets if current trends continue.

Investigators from Australia and Brazil have developed a handheld, smartphone-operated near-infrared spectrometer that beams infrared light for around five seconds on a person’s ears, arms, or fingers to identify malaria-related blood abnormalities.

They hope to utilize it for WHO-recommended universal screening, which is part of current malaria elimination initiatives.

If we can detect a large proportion of asymptomatic patients, they can receive treatment and prevent transmission to others, particularly children under the age of five years. By shining light on a body part, an infrared signature is detected through a phone or a computer. This infrared signature is a reflection of what is present in the bloodstream of a person. [As] malaria infects red blood cells causing both structural and chemical changes—these changes are what is observed in the reflected signature.

Maggy Lord, Study Lead Author and Researcher, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland

The research was published on December 7th, 2022, in PNAS Nexus.

Maggy Lord describes that computer algorithms are then utilized to construct predictive algorithms that distinguish malaria-infected patients from those who are not.

These off-the-shelf spectrometers cost roughly US$2,500, but do not require sample processing procedures nor reagents to operate and therefore could easily be scaled up to scan an estimated 1,000 people per day per device.

Maggy Lord, Study Lead Author and Researcher, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland

The tool results from a scientific collaboration between the University of Queensland in Australia and the Instituto Oswaldo Cruz in Brazil.

According to Lord, the technology could potentially aid in treating other vector-borne diseases, such as Zika and dengue, in asymptomatic persons who serve as a reservoir for mosquito transmission.

Lord adds, “This was just proof of concept and with further funding, we will expand the study to other malaria endemic areas before we can recommend these devices for clinical use. We are extending our work with partners in Kenya and Tanzania.”

The WHO’s World Malaria Report 2022 emphasizes the importance of investing in innovative instruments, strengthening health systems, and raising funds. In 2021, 247 million malaria cases were reported worldwide, resulting in an anticipated 619,000 deaths. While African countries accounted for more than 95% of cases and 96% of fatalities last year, nine malaria-endemic countries in South-East Asia supplied approximately 2% of the malaria burden.

In 2021, India accounted for over three-quarters of malaria cases in WHO’s South-East Asia area, with rises also observed in Bangladesh, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Indonesia. Papua New Guinea accounted for 87% of all cases in WHO’s Western Pacific area in 2021, followed by the Solomon Islands, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Sensitive diagnostics will play a key role in surveillance and early detection of outbreaks as malaria control efforts intensify and countries progress to elimination phases. As such, new and innovative diagnostic tools are urgently needed, especially in light of emerging threats to the effectiveness of some of the tools currently available.

Jane Achan, Senior Research Adviser, Malaria Consortium

Achan, who is not connected to the study, concludes, “Non-invasive malaria diagnostic tools are attractive as a rapid, reagent-free and affordable approach, but their sensitivity and specificity need to be confirmed in endemic settings and evidence gathered on how they can be integrated into healthcare practice universally.”

SCI malaria testing tool in action

Video Credit: University of Queensland.

Journal Reference

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.

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