Mobile device aims to improve malaria diagnosis and treatment

Nanotechnology in an affordable, hand-held diagnostic device could prove to be a powerful weapon in the global fight to diagnose and treat drug-resistant malaria. Plans for the mobile device were announced Sept. 26 by the Nanomal project, led by researchers at St. George's, University of London and U.K. handheld diagnostics and DNA sequencing specialist QuantuMDx Group.

The consortium, which also includes teams at the University of Tuebingen in Germany and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, has received funding of €5.2 million ($6.7 million), of which €4 million was provided by the European Commission. The goal is to develop a portable device that leverages the latest nanotechnologies to allow healthcare workers in remote rural areas to rapidly analyze a blood sample and provide a malaria diagnosis and comprehensive screening for drug susceptibility in less than 20 minutes, while the patient waits.

Malarial parasites in south-east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have mutated and become increasingly resistant to artemisinins, the most powerful class of anti-malarial drugs, according to the Oman Daily Observer. With just a finger prick of blood, the consortium's mobile device is designed to extract the malarial DNA from a parasite and then detect and sequence the specific mutations linked to drug resistance using a nanowire biosensor.

"Placing a full malaria screen with drug resistance status in the palm of a health professional's hand will allow instant prescribing of the most effective anti-malaria medication for that patient," Elaine Warburton, CEO of Newcastle, UK-based QuantuMDx, said in a statement. "Nanomal's rapid, low-cost test will further support the global health challenge to eradicate malaria."

Affordability is an important feature, given the need for such a diagnostic device in poorer countries that are combating Malaria, which kills about 800,000 people each year. According to the Nanomal project, the device will provide the same quality of result as referral laboratories that conduct expensive tests and drug resistance analysis, but at a fraction of the cost.

Initially, the device is expected to have the same price tag as a smartphone and single-test cartridges will cost around €13. However, eventually these devices may be issued for free in developing countries.

Clinical trials of the device should begin within three years. Once it is brought to market, the technology could be modified for the diagnosis and treatment of other infectious diseases.

In related news out of Europe, a Dutch effort to create a mobile malaria testing kit connected via Bluetooth is making it possible to track malaria outbreaks and the spread of particular strains, Venture Beat reports.

To learn more:
- read the St. George's, University of London announcement
- check out this Venture Beat article