Remote Screening and Diagnosis of Malaria and Other Blood Borne Parasites
Malaria is a debilitating, infectious disease characterized by chills, shaking and periodic bouts of intense fever. Each year, there are an estimated 400 million to 600 million cases of malaria and 2.7 million resulting deaths, worldwide. Malaria is found in many locations of the tropical world and in some locations of the subtropics, but there are only four species of the single-celled parasite of the genus Plasmodium that infect humans and cause the disease. Westerners who visit malarious countries are not immune. Several thousand return home from travels each year and are hospitalized with malaria. Expatriates and soldiers who live abroad are at a great risk of contracting malaria. Malaria was the number one cause of hospitalization among American troops deployed to Somalia; the number two cause among troops in Vietnam (after combat injury); and a leading cause among diplomats, missionaries and aid workers.
Malaria case numbers are increasing markedly in many third world countries for several reasons including the cessation of malaria vector control programs. Mosquitoes are the vectors – or intermediate carrier of the parasite that causes malaria. The disease is transmitted between humans by the bite of a female mosquito. Vector controls are aimed at reducing the mosquito population and preventing their access to humans. However, financial obstacles limit the success of this effort in many developing countries. Insecticides are expensive and increasingly unsuccessful in killing mosquitoes that are developing resistances to the various chemicals.
Antibiotics can be used as a preventative and a treatment. Unfortunately, drug resistance is becoming an alarming problem and contributes to uncontrollable outbreaks. Drug resistance is often connected with a legacy of foolishly overusing or under dosing antimalarial drugs. Expense is, again, an issue.
With continuous, affordable surveillance to promptly diagnose new cases, it would be possible to administer immediate, aggressive treatment. Eventually, malaria could be eliminated. Researchers at The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) and The School of Public Health have developed two methods of detecting and diagnosing malaria. The first method employs direct ultraviolet laser desorption (LD) time-of-flight mass spectrometry, and relies on the increase of the density of heme in the infected blood to discriminate the level of infection. The second method utilizes a computer controlled, digital microscope to generate electronic images of specific percentages of a blood smear. These images can be remotely or directly analyzed with an algorithm that detects parasites based on optical characteristics.
Both methods alleviate the time consuming direct inspection of blood smears by technicians – the standard practice currently employed. The JHU/APL methods advance the diagnostic accuracy and efficiency and optimize the use of standard medical equipment – especially when used in conjunction with the other. Each can detect all species of the malaria-causing parasite, are automated, fast, and more sensitive then diagnosis currently being performed. An unambiguous detection of parasitemia levels on the order of 10 parasites per micro liter of blood is possible and an increase in the sensitivity by an order of magnitude is predicted with continued development.
Currently these technologies are receiving funding for research and development, and are expected to be a focus for the armed services. Seven out of the last nine military deployments were to malaria endemic regions and it continues to be a big military problem. In Somalia, malaria was the top cause of troop casualties. One marine unit suffered a ten percent attack rate in one month, even under heavily enforced discipline for taking medicine.
Collaboration Opportunity: JHU/APL is seeking a corporate partner with expertise and a market presence in this field. This early-stage opportunity is available through an option, license and/or any of the various techniques the JHU/APL Office of Technology transfers to ensure a product makes it to market.
Dr. G. R. Jacobovitz
Phone: (443) 778-9899