Diagnosing Malaria

by Miguel Sandoval

Malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitos (with Plasmodium parasites), is correlated with poverty and causes the highest mortality in developing countries. Malaria is a curable and avertible disease, a number of medications having been found to treat some different forms of malaria, and protection against mosquitos being the simplest and most effective way of preventing infection. However, because malaria is correlated with poverty (causing the highest morality in developing countries), there were 200 million cases of malaria reported in the world in 2013. Of these 200 million cases, 650,000 people died of the disease, the majority being children. It continues to be a problem, because of limitations in monetary support, logistics, and technology.

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Researchers at Rice University think they may have a solution to this problem by using nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the production and study of small machines, particles, or structures that function at the molecular level and involves operating at the measure of 1 to 100 nanometers. Nanotechnology is a developing science that shows a lot of promise in many fields, especially medicine.

Nanotechnology has been used in quick diagnostic tests since the 1990s and has since then improved the way we understand the frequency of malaria. This has also allowed for new, effective ways of diagnosing the disease for the purpose of treatment. The application of nanotechnology to diagnosing malaria is much like using a lint-roller to collect lint and debris; the nanoparticles attract the malarial particles from blood and they become stuck together, and can then be detected. Many of the rapid diagnostic tests are based on gold nanoparticles that are coated in antibodies. If malarial parasites are present, then the nanoparticles attach to them and become stuck to a test strip where a band can then be seen, indicating a positive test result. These are easy to use and very little blood is needed to do the test, so there is very small amount of specialist training necessary, resources, and tools. The results of these tests are ready in minutes instead of days like other medical tests. However, accuracy can be a problem with these tests, as irregularities in manufacturing these tests can cause inconsistencies in sensitivity and false positives.

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Scientists are currently developing nanotechnology that may be able to overcome some of the problems with diagnosing malaria. Dmitri Lapotko and co-workers, a research team studying biochemistry and cell biology, have established a needle-free technique of diagnosing malaria. Malaria parasites can form nanoparticles in red blood cells, called hemozoins, and by using laser pulse technology researchers can produce vapor bubbles from the hemozoins. When these bubbles pop, an acoustic signal created uniquely by these nanoparticles can then be swiftly detected. Lapotko and his colleagues are looking forward to this technology being adapted into a portable device to be used outside a lab, with one test possibly only costing 50 cents.

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Nanotech is also being investigated and worked on to improve the certainty of diagnosis and thus neutralize the increase in antimalarial resistance. Jonathan O’Halloran constructed a nanowire-based biosensor that can analyze DNA samples straight from the blood. He then instituted the company QuantuMDX and years later the technology was advanced into a compact point-of-care device for complete malaria diagnosis. This method also only demands a drop of blood, which is inserted into a cassette that singles out and targets the malarial DNA.

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Vaccines for the disease are being developed, but there is not a sure-fire solution for treating or preventing malaria in that way yet. There is no nanotechnology involved in the developing of malaria vaccines, but the integration of nanoparticles can possibly make delivery of a vaccine more effective. Research is being done to develop treatments and also make use of the diagnosing devices more widespread. The World Health Organization states that the issue is the money needed to make these advances is not available. Some organizations such as QuantuMDX has begun its own movement to raise money from online patrons to achieve its goals and make progresses in nanotechnology to fight malaria.

Works Cited:

“Investing in the Future.” Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 03 Apr. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

For further reading:

Nanotechnology Applied to Malaria
Nanotechnology Device Aims to Prevent Malaria Deaths Through Rapid Diagnosis
The CDC’s  guide to malaria
Help end Malaria Deaths with Malaria No More.org