Getting a diagnosis quickly means getting treatment fast – and that can make a life-or-death difference for some malaria patients.
Italian researcher Dan Cojoc said that was the primary motivation behind his recent project to develop a new screening technique for the mosquito-born illness.
He said a friend from Ivory Coast provides a good example of why faster tests are needed. “He told me about his kid who was touched by malaria,” Cojoc explained. “And when he was at the hospital, the father was dispirited, because the doctors said you will have the [diagnosis] in 12 hours. In 12 hours, the person can die.”
Cojoc said his international team has developed a new technique that can get a diagnosis in minutes.
He said the current standard method to test for malaria requires special training and expensive equipment. “This actual technique can only be applied in hospitals, which are very few in Africa.” Cojoc said his team wanted to create “a device which can be used in every corner of a country.”
Cojoc's technique involves taking a one-second video of a red blood cell, while shining a tinted light through it. The recording is done at a high frame rate, meaning that the second is broken down into many separate slides. The light shows up in the video in what he called a “speckle pattern” – created by vibrations of the cell membrane.
Cojoc said when viewed this way, the difference between a healthy cell and one infected with the malaria parasite is immediately obvious. “A healthy cell vibrates in one way, and infected cells in a different way, because when a parasite enters into a cell, the cell [membrane] becomes stiffer.”
He is working on the final phases of developing a low-cost instrument that would implement this technique. He says he expects the final product will include a special, portable microscope, costing around $400, and disposable microchips to hold the blood sample, costing less than a dollar each.
Cojoc, a senior scientist at the Istituto Officina dei Materiali, added his team also hopes to apply his “speckle pattern” technique to other diseases.
“We do think that this technique can be applied also to characterize other types of cells,” he said, “the healthy cells and the cancer cells, for instance.”
According to the World Health Organization, a child dies from malaria every minute in Africa. The organization says prompt and effective treatment is a key component in controlling the disease.