Low-Cost Detector Sets Sights on Malaria Eradication

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2005 James Gathany, Frank Collins This photograph depicts a Anopheles funestus mosquito partaking in a blood meal from its human host. Note the blood passing through the proboscis, which has penetrated the skin, and entered a miniscule cutaneous blood vessel. The Anopheles funestus mosquito, which along with Anopheles gambiae, is one of the two most important malaria vectors in Africa, where more than 80% of the world's malarial disease and deaths occurs. Humans infected with malaria parasites can develop a wide range of symptoms. These vary from asymptomatic infections, i.e., no apparent illness, to the classic symptoms of malaria including fever, chills, sweating, headaches, muscle pains, to severe complications such as cerebral malaria, anemia, and kidney failure, and even death. The severity of the symptoms depends on several factors, including the species of infecting parasite, and the infected humanís acquired immunity and genetic background.The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 1 million people die annually from malaria, the vast majority of which live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Diagnostic tests exist and can be used easily in the field to rapidly determine if a person is in need of treatment, but access to them is sometimes hard to come by. In 2010, it is estimated that about 1.5 billion people needed malaria diagnostic testing, but only 16 million diagnostic tests were actually carried out.

Limited drug supplies are also over-prescribed, leading to inefficient use and increased resistance. While existing diagnostic tests are accurate, they are not as skilled in identifying carriers who don’t show symptoms or feel ill, but are still able to transmit the disease to other people. That’s why three Dutch developers have created Amplino, a device that aims not just to treat malaria, but eradicate it altogether by identifying those hard-to-detect cases.

Amplino is a simple machine that uses very sensitive technology to detect small quantities of DNA and identify strains of malaria with higher accuracy at lower levels of concentrations than other tests. It’s so easy to use that it can be employed outside of the lab without needing trained technicians. A finger is pricked to collect a blood sample into a consumable cartridge, the cartridge is then loaded into the device and the device is started, and a result is easily read within a short time.

 

Difficult to Detect

 

malaria2The testing device is connected via Bluetooth to a mobile phone where it can be recorded in the Amplino database and tracked on a map to monitor the spread of certain strains. Its creators say that it is best used when targeted at people who have weakened immune symptoms, making it harder to detect the virus, such as pregnant women or HIV positive people. It can also be used in areas where prevalence is low and its accuracy can help eradicate cases that are difficult to detect.

The prototype version of Amplino was made of hairdryer parts in a shoebox. In 2012, the creators won a $45,000 prize in the Vodafone Mobile for Good competition to create a commercial prototype. Three years later, the mobile device comes in a red carrying case and sells for about $250, when the price of a similar lab machine would cost about $30,000. The device is scheduled to start field testing in Zambia later this year, and hopes to follow up testing later in Indonesia.

 

Reliable, Low-Tech Healthcare

 

malariaAmplino is also scheduled for commercial production and is in talks with a group in China. Opportunities for expansion don’t stop there; the mobile technology can detect other types of pathogens as well by changing a chemical component used in the device.

While Amplino is still in its testing stages and is not readily available yet, it does have the potential to fill a gap in global healthcare and become a reliable, low-tech tool in the eradication of malaria. Current tests in use in the field are quite effective, but Amplino is different in that it hopes to help bring an end to malaria cases completely.

In the future, Amplino’s database could also help to target where future outbreaks may arise and treat cases more efficiently and effectively. Overall, once field testing is completed, Amplino could become an important tool in helping governments and health workers worldwide strategically combat malaria.

 

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Valerie Busch

Valerie Busch

Valerie is a development professional based in Toronto, Ontario.

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