The United Nations has declared this the Decade to Roll Back Malaria. But ten years to eradicate a parasite that's been in existence for more than 30 million years is a big challenge. It was only just over a century ago that scientists established the mosquito's role in transmitting the deadly parasite to humans. The U.S. Army is working on a malaria vaccine, but development is still years away. To speed up the process, a small bio-technology company in Morgantown, West Virginia has been called in to develop a special piece of equipment.
The small building known as MD Biotech is crammed between a hair salon and a music shop, near the university in Morgantown, West Virginia. At first glance, it doesn't look very important. But looks can be deceiving Dr. Shawna Jackman believes the tiny company she works for may hold the key to helping rid the world of malaria. Malaria is an internationally devastating disease. It affects approximately 6 million people a year and will result in 2.7 million deaths. The majority of these infections are in African children, which is almost 75 percent," she says.
Since the U.S. Army awarded Biotech a contract last December, the young scientist has been devoting herself full time to developing an automated malaria microscope. "According to the World Health Organization, malaria puts about 40% of the world's population at risk. They presently have drugs that are being used to treat the infection and decrease the spread of the disease, but the parasites are actually becoming resistant to these," she says. "The reason why the military is particularly interested in this is because U.S. military personnel are constantly being deployed to these third world countries that are at risk."
When an infected mosquito bites someone, the Malaria parasites are injected into the bloodstream. They are immediately carried to the liver, where they begin to multiply. Most research has concentrated on eliminating the parasite in the bloodstream, however the military wants Dr. Jackman and MD Biotech to work with the liver stage. "Of course all the blood in the body is cycled through the liver, eventually that parasite gets to the liver stage. So the inflicted liver cell will progress to the point where it bursts and then produces more malarial parasites, hence the infection continues. The reason we didn't concentrate on the blood section is because as far as the vaccine production goes, the most effective vaccine should be in the liver," she says. "That's where the cycle goes through and progressed."
The automated microscope MD Biotech is developing in cooperation with the technology lab Tritek is housed in a large black metal box about 30 centimeters wide by 45 centimeters high and 45 centimeters deep. The lid of the box is removed so slides can be positioned inside. Instead of an eyepiece, the microscope has a camera and video monitor, connected to a computer, which capture an image of the slides and analyze what's on them.
In this initial research phase of the project, each slide contains liver cells with the malaria parasite grown from a laboratory strain at the Armed Forces Research Institute in Bangkok, Thailand. Dr. Jackman says her software will help the system learn to tell the difference between the different stages of the parasite. "Since it is an automated system, the important part of it is the algorithms that go into it. The algorithms are basically teaching the computer to recognize certain cells and differentiate those cells from the parasite," she says.
When the malaria microscope is complete it will be able to evaluate and assess the degree of infection in anywhere from one to several hundred slides at a time. It will also compensate for variations between slides in staining and cell preparation for a more concise outcome. And it will do it all in a matter of hours. "The reason malaria researchers are most interested in this is if they can study the efficacy of a vaccine by the amount of parasites that are formed, than the faster they can do that, the faster we can actually get a malarial vaccine," she says.
Dr. Jackman's colleague, Lance Malroy says that's only one reason why malarial researchers are so interested in this new technology. "That's the nice thing about the malaria microscope, you don't need high skilled, highly trained individuals to use these things. So that's kind of our niche so to speak, to work on integrating technologies to a point where they can be used in an everyday type of setting," he says.
Although MD Biotech isn't at liberty to disclose the exact cost of developing the malaria microscope, Dr. Jackman says it's well below $100,000. She considers it a small price to pay to eradicate an affliction that the World Health Organization recognizes as both a disease of poverty and a cause of poverty. It's estimated that personal and public expenditures to prevent and treat malaria slow economic growth in some African countries by more than 1% a year. "We develop a lot of automated microscopes for specific purposes, but this is the first one we've been working on that will have such a widespread impact on the health of the basically the entire world," she says.
It will take MD Biotech two years to perfect its malaria microscope. Since the Army funded the project, the U.S. military will receive the technology first. However the company believes the microscope will also be of great interest and assistance to pharmaceutical and other biomedical companies as well as academic researchers.