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A Search & Destroy Mission: Scientists Seek a New Fast Way to Detect Malaria Parasites

The parasites that cause malaria, from the plasmodium genus, can lay low in their victims’ blood and organs and hide from common malaria tests. Up to three months can pass before cramps, chills, fever and other symptoms appear, but they can be easily confused for other maladies. During this period, the parasite can break out and infect mosquitoes, which spread it around and cause infection in others.

The disease kills 500,000 people annually and some 200 million get infected every year. Most of them are children under the age of five living in sub-Saharan Africa. Patients suffering from malaria symptoms strain healthcare in places with few spare resources. “Today, when you show up at a clinic, current technology will know you have it only when you’re already pretty far down the malaria road,” says Brian McIlroy, a director at GE Ventures, GE’s venture capital arm. “Asymptomatic cases get sent home and the disease can propagate through the community.”

One solution is a testing kit that can unmask the culprit early on, when it is hidden from conventional tests, and stop its spread. That’s why GE Ventures and GE Global Research partnered with Global Good. Together they want to develop an affordable testing platform that could be deployed anywhere and detect hidden cases of malaria. It would allow health teams to identify people who need treatment early, stop the disease, and eventually wipe out malaria entirely.

“With this technology, we’d like to arm health workers to simply and accurately detect malaria in more remote locations with easy-to-use yet advanced technology,” says Deborah Zajac, director of business development at GE Ventures. “The idea is to give people an accurate diagnosis and therapeutics on the spot, wherever they are.”

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Top image: Female mosquitos of the Anopheles genus are the main vector for spreading malaria. Image credit: Alan R. Walker Graphic credit: National Institutes of Health

Much of what the partners need to build for an early diagnosis platform already exists. GE will contribute an advanced, paper-based diagnostic test called a lateral flow immunoassay (LFA), a simple device that can spot proteins produced by the malaria parasites. The LFA test will build on work GE completed for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Global Good is providing a state-of-the-art reader that will detect nanoparticles tagged to key bio-markers for the detection of malaria.

“The existing tests are not specific or sensitive enough,” says David Moore, a lab manager at GE Global Research, who will be leading the technology development. “Potentially, we can improve sensitivity by greater than 20 times to get to an improved point-of-care diagnostic test.”

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Scanning electron micrograph of Plasmodium gallinaceum (purple) invading mosquito midgut. Image credit: National Institutes of Health

The program will run for two years, with the first field trials set to begin this summer. Scientists will start with the existing LFA technologies to find areas where they could be optimized to dramatically enhance the platform’s detection capabilities. If all goes well, a commercial model could go to market in three or four years.

Provided the malaria infection test project is successful, the partners’ plan to expand the platform’s capabilities is to detect tuberculosis. The team will then start looking at potential uses for the system in the developed world.

“What GE and Global Good hope to accomplish in the field of disease diagnosis is also representative of a broader goal,” said Maurizio Vecchione, who leads Global Good. “As partners, we want to use invention to catalyze a market that has been neglected for the world’spoorest.”  

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