Missile technology fired at malaria’s heart

The sensor, called a focal plane array, detects infrared energy.

The microscopic image above (taken with an electron microscope) shows a bag of malaria parasites inside a mosquito. The bag contains between 5,000 and 20,000 parasites.

There may be a new weapon emerging in the fight against malaria. Researchers say they have successfully used a heat-seeking detector normally employed as part of an anti-tank weapon to quickly sense the parasite in blood during the earliest stages of infection.

Researchers at Australia’s Monash University and the University of Melbourne used an advanced imaging sensor originally developed for the shoulder-fired Javelin missile system, which is used by soldiers and Marines against tanks, helicopters or buildings.

“Our test detects malaria at its very early stages, so that doctors can stop the disease in its tracks before it takes hold and kills. We believe this sets the gold standard for malaria testing,” said Monash chemist Bayden Wood in a statement.

The sensor, called a focal plane array, detects infrared energy. The malaria researchers connected it to an infrared imaging microscope to characterize specific heat signatures of fatty acids within the parasite. The process, called Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, analyzes the infrared spectrum absorbed, reflected and emitted by these molecules, which creates a unique fingerprint to tell if blood is infected and at what stage the disease is in.

Their work was published recently in the journal Analyst.

The sensitivity of the system let the team see malaria-causing microbes within a single red blood cell. It saw the microbes within four minutes and let researchers count the number of invaders within a sample of blood. This speed and precision could improve a normally hours- or days-long diagnostic process. Researchers say it can also detect the onset of disease even without telltale symptoms.

Around 207 million people were living with malaria in 2012, according to the World Health Organization, and around 627,000 died. African children under the age of five accounted for nearly 90 percent of all malaria deaths in 2012.

“In many countries only people who display signs of malaria are treated,” said study coauthor and University of Melbourne biochemist Leann Tilley. ”But the problem with this approach is that some people don’t have typical flu-like symptoms associated with malaria, and this means a reservoir of parasites persists that can re-emerge and spread very quickly within a community. Our test works because it can detect the malaria parasite at the very early stages and can reliably detect it in an automated manner in a single red blood cell. No other test can do that.”

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