Researchers are on the verge of developing a new breath test that could detect malaria. The team from Washington University in St. Louis found that malaria in blood leaves a typical “breathprint” that is unique and can be detected using a breath analyzer test. They presented their findings at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Annual Meeting this week.
The team of researchers worked on a group of African children and found that this new breath test was significantly successful in detecting and diagnosing malaria. This is the first study of its kind that shows that when a person gets malaria, he or she can exhale certain chemical compounds that could be easily detected using an appropriate device. They noted that the breath of a person with malaria contains a compound that is similar to a vapour that plants produce that can attract mosquitoes. This is probably the reason why mosquitoes are attracted to persons with malaria and the bite infects the mosquitoes that can spread the disease to others when they bite them.
Audrey Odom John, principal author of the study and associate professor of Pediatrics and of Molecular Microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine explained that one of the compounds found was terpene. It is an attractant for the mosquitoes. She added that this could also be used to trap mosquitoes and prevent them from biting. This would lead to more effective mosquito control she explained.
Chad Schaber, who presented the results of the study explained that the biologists and bioengineers on the team identified the six unique compounds found in the breaths of the children with malaria. They collected breath samples from 35 children aged 3 to 15 years The children had come to a pediatric care center in Lilongwe, Malawi with fever and symptoms of malaria. Of these 35 children, 17 had tested positive for malaria and 18 were negative in other conventional tests. The breath samples were collected in a balloon like bag and the breath was then sealed in a tube with absorbent material to be analyzed in the labs. The blood samples of these kids were also analyzed simultaneously. The breath test could successfully predict which ones of these had malaria in 83 percent cases. They correctly predicted malaria or not in 29 of the 35 cases.
According to the researchers as well as health experts, malaria detection using simple tools such as this breath analyzer could be a boon to the regions affected with this disease. It would be able to detect the disease early and provide life saving treatment to the infected persons and also act as a surveillance tool to know the prevalence of the infection in large populations where healthcare reaches poorly. This could be the push required to eradicate the disease from regions believe experts. At present malaria requires blood tests for diagnosis. There are simple finger prick tests for diagnosis of malaria but these tests are limited in their success at diagnosing malaria correctly. There are rapid diagnostic tests or RDTs that could detect malaria easily. However a deadly and common form of malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum or falciparum malaria is not easily detected by these RDTs. This is because falciparum malaria patients do not produce a specific protein needed to detect the infection.
The success rates of RDTs and also checking slides of blood smears under the microscope manually have a 90 percent accuracy in detecting malaria compared to the 83 percent predicted by breath tests agree researchers. The blood sample tests thus remain the mainstay of diagnosing malaria. But simple non-invasive and easy to administer tests such as these breath analyzer tests could be helpful in rural areas where resources are scarce. With time the success rates for this new test would also improve they add.
According to Schaber a new technology called the “eNose” is a compact electronic nose that is shaped like a credit card. It can detect specific smells accurately. It is being used to detect bombs etc. This same technology could be developed in detection of malaria using the breath tests. He added that eNose is already being developed for the diagnosis of tuberculosis – another infectious disease affecting thousands of people worldwide.