New Malaria Breath Test Helps Fight Disease Worldwide

Malaria is a mosquito-borne illness which is obtained through a bite. The parasite that is carried by the mosquito is called Plasmodium falciparum, which can be transmitted from person to person. Being that at least half of the world is exposed to the risk of getting malaria, it is one of the world’s deadliest diseases if left untreated. In 2015 alone, there were about 212 million cases worldwide, resulting in 429,000 deaths. Though most of these cases are from Africa, many of them children, there are approximately 1,700 malaria cases each year in the United States. Malaria in the United States and other developed countries is sometimes brought by immigrants or travelers who have returned from places where it is more prevalent.

Typically, malaria is tested through the blood. This requires an area that is sterile and costs more money because of the use lab equipment. The blood is stained and looked at under a microscope. If the color changes to purple, the disease is present. In effect, this method can be more detrimental to rural countries that do not have access to malaria testing, because sometimes the disease can be left untreated.

A new test has been created, however, which tests malaria through someone’s breath. This was developed by researchers from an Australian federal government agency, along with Washington University in St. Louis professor Audrey R. Odom John. They were given a $1.4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop the test and conducting research. The goal of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is develop a practical malaria test and decrease the existence of malaria.

The breath test is less expensive than a blood test, which is beneficial to everyone. It is also sanitary and does not require needles and blood work, which can be harmful if blood is drawn in an unsanitary environment.

Progress on the test has been making headlines. When a patient breaths into the tube, a distinct odor can be detected. This odor replicates the smell that mosquitoes carrying the malaria virus smell in humans. A breath test was given to 35 children in Malawi, who all showed symptoms of sickness or a fever. Some of the children had malaria, and others did not. The test successfully diagnosed 29 of the children. Researchers did find compounds, or more than one element together, in the children, which were different in both groups. Not only were those compounds found, but there were also terpenes. Terpenes are a group of compounds which are let off by plants and some insects. Their purpose is to guard the plant or insect. They also act as a strong attraction to humans by mosquitoes. Through this, researchers realized the possibility of mosquitos being drawn to patients who are infected.

Photo credit: Indi Trehan.

Indi Trehan, a pediatrician at Washington University in St. Louis, specializes in locations with little access to resources. In a Wired article by Robbie Gonzalez, Dr. Trehan stated that “a malaria breathalyzer, in a rural context, would be tremendous. Especially places where HIV is common, and there’s a lot of fear surrounding blood and needles.” The test is practical, and it is being revised to improve accuracy.

The malaria breath test has undergone many tests and has been revised each time. The finalized breath test only includes a few pieces, which are a mouthpiece, a clear gauge, and tubing. It is hoped this this device will be able to help children and adults all around the world.

Featured image credit: Indi Trehan.

About the author

Dusey is a Senior at Collegiate.