ST. LOUIS, (Reuters) - Diagnosing malaria may soon be as easy taking a simple breath test, according to researchers.
“We really envision this working just like a breathalyzer test when you get pulled over for drunk driving,” said Dr. Audrey Odom, an assistant professor of pediatrics and molecular biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
The device, still in development, would be comparable in cost or less expensive than current diagnostic tools such as a Malaria Rapid Diagnosis Test and wouldn’t require blood samples or trained personnel to use, according to Odom.
The work began in the lab where Odom and her colleagues discovered the parasite produces aromatic organic compounds called terpenes that give off a scent that attracts mosquito’s.
“Those type of compounds when they are in the blood can actually get into the lungs and out in the gas that you exhale,” she said.
The research then moved on to a pilot study in Malawi where the scientists were able to detect and diagnose malaria with 100 percent accuracy in the exhaled breath of children. A second study is scheduled for next fall.
Malaria kills an estimated half a million people every year, most of those children under the age of 5 in Sub Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“We are giving almost 300 million doses of malaria treatment every year and we don’t even know if we are giving them to the right people,” said Odom, adding that over use of antimalarials increases the risk of drug resistance.
“We want to judiciously use antimicrobial and antimalarials only on the people that really need them. So I think a low cost diagnostic test that you could disseminate more widely would allow us to preserve our antimalarials only for the children who need them which would let them work longer.”
Similar research into breathlyzer-type diagnostic tools is underway for diseases such tuberculosis and lung cancer.