European project to produce handheld malaria diagnosis device

Device to provide rapid, low-cost diagnosis and screening of drug resistance

Kelsey Kaustinen
LONDON—Inresponse to worrying signs that the malaria parasite is developing mutations tobecome resistant to artemisinins, the most powerful class of anti-malarialdrugs, a new consortium has been launched in hopes of providing a new, mobilemethod of detecting malaria infection.
 
 
The Nanomal project is a 5.2 million euro (approximately $6.7 million)undertaking that will seek to provide an affordable, handheld diagnostic devicethat will allow for rapid detection of malarial infection and parasites'resistance. The consortium is being led by St. George's, University of London,which is joined by QuantuMDx Group, a United Kingdom-based specialist in DNAsequencing and handheld diagnostics, as well as teams at the University ofTuebingen in Germany and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The project hasbeen awarded 4 million euro (approximately $5.2 million) by the EuropeanCommission.
 
"Recentresearch suggests there's a real danger that artemisinins could eventuallybecome obsolete, in the same way as other anti-malarials," Prof. SanjeevKrishna of St. George's, Nanomal lead, said in a press release. "New drugtreatments take many years to develop, so the quickest and cheapest alternativeis to optimize the use of current drugs. The huge advances in technology arenow giving us a tremendous opportunity to do that and to avoid people fallingseriously ill or dying unnecessarily."
 
The currentmethod of malaria diagnosis consists of sending blood samples to a centralreferral laboratory for drug resistance testing, which is time-intensive andrequires expensive specialized tests. It is not always possible to confirmmalaria infection where patients present with fever, and most often treatmentsare prescribed before a diagnosis and drug resistance are confirmed, and inturn might not be effective.
 
 
The handhelddevice intended to replace this process is the size and shape of a cell phone,and will make use of a range of proven nanotechnologies to rapidly analyzeparasite DNA in each blood sample. The device will be capable of delivering amalaria diagnosis, as well as a comprehensive screening for drugsusceptibility, in less than 20 minutes. Much like blood sugar monitoring, thedevice will take a finger prick of blood. The malaria DNA will then beextracted, with specific mutations related to drug resistance detected andsequenced using a nanowire biosensor. DNA sequences are detected by the chipand converted into binary code, which can then be analyzed and shared forreal-time monitoring.
 
 
"Placing afull malaria screen with drug resistance status in the palm of a healthprofessional's hand will allow instant prescribing of the most effectiveanti-malaria medication for that patient. Nanomal's rapid, low-cost test willfurther support the global health challenge to eradicate malaria," said ElaineWarburton, CEO of QuantuMDx, in a press release.
 
It is expectedthat this device will be able to offer results of the same quality produced byreferral laboratories, more rapidly and at a fraction of the cost, with eachdevice costly roughly the same as a smart phone (to potentially be issued forfree in developing countries). Each single-test cartridge will costapproximately 13 euro (approximately $17) initially, though it is planned toshave that price down further. The Nanomal project will also enable researchersto better determine levels of anti-malaria drug resistance in areas with thehighest prevalence of the disease, as well as population impacts of drugtreatments. Clinical trials for this device are slated to begin within threeyears, after which the device will go to market.
 
 
Approximately800,000 people die from malaria each year as a result of mosquito bites, andaccording to the World Health Organization's (WHO) World malaria report 2011, there were approximately 216 millioncases of malaria in 2010 ("with an uncertainty range of 149 million to 274million," as noted on the website). WHO notes that "Malaria mortality rateshave fallen by more than 25 percent globally since 2000." Malaria continues tobe most prevalent in developing countries, with the leading signs of developingresistance appearing in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010, "90percent of all malaria deaths occurred in the WHO African Region," according tothe organization's website, with most deaths occurring among children underfive.
 
 
SOURCE: Nanomal press release

Kelsey Kaustinen

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