Optical data storage technologies take on malaria

Work to develop the world’s first hand-held non-invasive malaria detector, which has adapted the magnetic and optical technologies used for data storage, has begun.

Malaria kills at least one million people every year, and it is only reliably diagnosed by examining blood samples under a microscope, which requires both time and expert attention. Researchers from ExeterUniversity‘s engineering, computer science and maths school are leading a €1.4m European project to build a system that does the job quickly without even piercing the skin. Partners include Philips Medical Systems, Metis Instruments and Eurorad.

‘When it infects red blood cells the malaria parasite changes their magnetic susceptibility by transforming normal diamagnetic oxy-haemoglobin into paramagnetic Haemozoin’, said Exeter‘s Dr Dave Newman, a data storage expert. ‘We aim to detect that change and determine the degree of infection.’

Healthy, non-infected engineers have donated samples of their own blood regularly so that a baseline for the magnetic readings can be ascertained. Then the analysis will be applied to samples that have known levels of infection, supplied by CoventryUniversity and the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam.

‘We are hoping we will be able to measure at least three, if not four, parameters to avoid false positives or negatives,’ said Newman. When researchers are confident the technology works on blood outside the body, they will develop a hand-held device that can be placed against the ear lobe or the webbing between fingers. If they can demonstrate that it is affordable, the industrial partners will have the option to develop the final product.

Elements of the three-year project and its application are thought to be so novel that details cannot be released until the intellectual properties are protected. Newman first considered similar applications 25 years ago.

‘Most malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa where access to basic diagnostic facilities is often extremely restricted,’ said Newman. ‘There’s an urgent need for a fast, life-saving device that can accurately detect the presence of the parasite without drawing blood or requiring traditional skills and technology.’