Mosquito biting a person

Infrared light beam could be used to detect malaria

Image credit: Pixabay

University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have developed a chemical-free, needle-free tool to detect malaria through the skin using infrared light.

The new tool could help save hundreds of thousands of lives annually.

Malaria is usually detected by a blood test, but scientists have devised a method using a device that shines a beam of harmless infrared light on a person’s ear or finger for between five and 10 seconds. The tool then collects an infrared signature that is processed by a computer algorithm.

Dr Maggy Lord, the international team leader from UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, said the technology would revolutionise how malaria is fought globally.

“Currently it’s incredibly challenging to test large groups of people, such as the population of a village or town. You have to take blood from everyone and mix it with a reagent to get a result,” she said. “With this tool, we can find out very quickly whether a whole village or town is suffering from, or carrying, malaria."

The device can be operated using a smartphone, so it is accessible to a wide range of the global population and the results can be acquired in real-time.

The malaria detection tool collects an infrared signature for a mobile phone to process.

The malaria detection tool collects an infrared signature for a mobile phone to process. / University of Queensland

Image credit: The University of Queensland

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites and spread to humans through infected mosquitoes. It is preventable and curable, yet resistance to current antimalarial drugs is causing an avoidable loss of life.

According to the World Health Organisation malaria report, in 2020 there were an estimated 241 million cases worldwide and more than 600,000 died from malaria. Moreover, most of these cases were recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 per cent of deaths are children under five years old.

The researchers believe that technology is the first step to eliminating this disease, which affects so many people across the world. 

“The biggest challenge in eliminating the disease is the presence of asymptomatic people in a population who act as a reservoir for transmission by mosquitos," Lord said. 

“The World Health Organisation has proposed large-scale surveillance in endemic areas and this non-invasive, affordable and rapid tool offers a way to achieve that.”

In addition to malaria, the technology developed at the University of Queensland might also be able to help tackle other diseases, particularly those that have similar transmission processes or to prevent the spread of viruses and pandemics like Covid-19.  

“We’ve successfully used this technology on mosquitoes to non-invasively detect infections such as malaria, Zika and dengue,” Lord said.

“We hope the tool could be used at ports of entry to screen travellers, minimising the re-introduction of diseases and reducing global outbreaks. It’s still early days, but this proof-of-concept is exciting.”

Given the large challenge that malaria poses, other research groups have come up with different proposals to tackle this disease. In August, an international research team used data from the WorldWide Antimalarial Resistance Network (WWARN), to map the prevalence of genetic markers that show resistance to Plasmodium falciparum – the parasite that causes malaria.

Earlier in the year, scientists at Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust described their use of drone footage to identify bodies of water infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

The University of Queensland researchers' findings were published in the journal PNAS Nexus.

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