Could a Test for Malaria Be as Easy as a Breathalyzer?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

More than half a million people die of malaria every year, most of them children under the age of five in Africa. And in the areas where it is most endemic, it remains relatively expensive to diagnose. But a group of scientists in Missouri are working on a groundbreaking method to test for the disease that, if successful, could save time, money, and most importantly, lives.

What is it? A malaria-styled breathalyzer.

“If you could diagnose [children with malaria] earlier, and get them treatment earlier, the studies are pretty clear that early treatment reduces mortality dramatically,” says Audrey Odom, Assistant professor of pediatrics and molecular microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

There is still work to be done, but the results Odom and her team at Washington University have come up with so far are promising. Their research, recently published in the journal mBio, indicates that the malaria parasite produces a class of compounds which might attract mosquitos. Meaning that: if mosquitoes can smell the malaria-born compounds then they should also be detectable through a noninvasive test similar to a breathalyzer, without the need for a microscope or blood sample.

“The compounds that we found have been described in the literature as mosquito attractants at low levels,” she explains. “At high levels, they’re mosquito repellants, so we think it’s a lot like perfume for people. Sometimes a little bit smells nice and a lot is repellant.”

Part of what prompted their study was previous research indicating that mosquitoes are more likely to bite people who already have malaria. This would be advantageous for the parasite because it can’t travel from human to human by itself. Rather, malaria spreads when a mosquito bites someone who already has the parasite, becomes infected, and then bites someone else.

“There were studies in children and in mice and also in birds showing that mosquitoes would choose to bite an individual that was malaria-infected rather than one that was not, and so that really suggested that there’s something about when malaria is infecting people that can get out of the body,” Odom says. “So, we went looking to see if we could find them.”

Source: Public Radio International (link opens in a new window)

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