Australian scientists have made a significant discovery that could lead to a test for malaria without taking blood.
Researchers at CSIRO, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Australian National University found a way to diagnose malaria by identifying distinctive chemicals in the breath of patients infected.
They looked at the breath of volunteers, who had been given a controlled malaria infection as part of existing studies to develop new treatments, and found that the levels of normally almost undetectable chemicals increased markedly.
“What is exciting is that the increase in these chemicals were present at very early stages of infection, when many other methods would have been unable to detect the parasite in the body of people infected with malaria,” said Dr Stephen Trowell at CSIRO.
“In addition to its potentially better sensitivity, human breath offers an attractive alternative to blood tests for diagnosing malaria.”
The study, in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, was conducted in two independent studies where experimental drug treatments were being tested in volunteers who had been given a very small dose of infection.
Using a sophisticated analytical instrument, the researchers identified four sulphur-containing compounds whose levels varied across the time course of the malaria infection.
They also detected foul-smelling compounds – at levels far too low for humans to smell – in the breath of people with malaria.
Up to now, these chemicals have only been detected using very expensive, laboratory based instruments, and only in the breath of volunteers experiencing a controlled malaria infection in the clinic.
“Now we are collaborating with researchers in regions where malaria is endemic, to test whether the same chemicals can be found in the breath of patients,” Dr Trowell said.
“We are also working with colleagues to develop very specific, sensitive and cheap biosensors that could be used in the clinic and the field to test breath for malaria.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there were almost 200 million cases and over half a million deaths due to malaria in 2013.
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