New Home Malaria Test Could Save Lives

Research into the method, which utilizes cheap paper strips, shows that it's ideal for poor and rural populations

Courtesy of Abraham Badu-Tawiah
Jul 09, 2016 at 1:04 PM ET

For regions of the world where malaria remains rampant, contracting the mosquito-borne parasite can still mean death. In order to help poor and rural populations with limited access to health clinics avoid such an outcome, researchers are Ohio State University are developing a 50-cent paper strip that detects diseases such as malaria earlier on, allowing people to seek treatment before the worst symptoms kick in.

Worldwide, every year between 300 to 600 million people contract malaria, a parasite that causes fever, vomiting, and, if left untreated death. According to Unicef, more than one million people die of malaria each year, with 90 percent of cases of the disease occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.

Abraham Badu-Tawiah, originally from Ghana and now working as an assistant professor in OSU’s chemistry department, explained that in many parts of Africa, the first sign of a fever is usually interpreted to be malaria. Therefore, feverish people flock to drug stores to buy anti-malarial drugs (when they can afford to), even though they may be suffering from a different ailment all together. “There is a huge drug resistance over the years, so drugs don’t work so well right now,” he told Vocativ. “The way people diagnose the disease is not very effective. They wait to get sick and they try to [self] diagnose it,” adding that the incubation period of the parasite hovers around 14 days.

The impact of such inaccurate self-diagnoses inspired Badu-Tawiah to develop a more effective way for people in regions such as his native sub-Saharan Africa to screen themselves for malaria and other illnesses before it is imperative they seek professional care.

Enter the paper strip, a printable “blood-based test” that utilizes wax ink to store samples. In the study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, users applied a drop of blood to the strip, which was then sent to a laboratory for screening for malaria. Those who received positive results were the only ones who needed to visit a clinic. Furthermore, the research team behind the strips found that results from the paper were valid even after a month, demonstrating their possible value for hard-to-reach rural areas. “To get tested, all a person would have to do is put a drop of blood on the paper strip, fold it in half, put it in an envelope and mail it,” Badu-Tawiah said in a release.

More New Breath Test Could Revolutionize Malaria Detection

Badu-Tawiah explained that similar paper-based medical diagnostics—like home pregnancy tests—use enzymes for detection. But since enzymes are sensitive to light, temperature, and humidity, the researchers created new test that identified antigen levels in the blood. This new method, according to their study, utilized probes that “make possible sensitive, interruptible, storable, and restorable on-demand detection.” These probes are more resistant to humidity, light, and temperature than enzymes—a huge plus in the heat that defines many parts of malaria-rich regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia—and their presence made detection easy with a handheld mass spectrometer, an apparatus for separating isotopes, molecules, and, molecular fragments according to mass.

For Badu-Tawiah, the technology, which is awaiting an official patent, could be a major boon for poor people who either live far away from medical clinics or who cannot afford personal checkups—in addition to malaria, the device can also screen for ailments such as HIV and syphilis, with one strip able to detect up to four diseases at once. People could also use the strips at home.

Badu-Taiwah said he is driven to distribute these tests so poor villagers can take control of their own destinies, rather than be at the mercy of time and distance. He explained that some farmers in certain parts of Africa, for instance, only travel to nearby towns or cities once a month to sell their harvests at traditional markets. But while they are usually not coupling these trips with visits to local physicians, they could drop off their strips at local labs, effectively screening themselves while also going about their business, or simply mail them when needed. “It’s not about lack of resources, it’s about access,” he told Vocativ. “I think this technology will create a break.”