Scottish Researchers Diagnose Malaria with Origami

An origami-like test could provide a way for doctors to diagnose malaria cheaply and quickly in impoverished regions, according to scientists at the University of Glasgow.

To treat malaria infections effectively, it is important to select the right drug for the specific species of parasite, many of which can be resistant to certain antimalarial drugs. For this reason, diagnostics are vital for fighting malaria outbreaks, which affected 219 million people in 2017.

The gold-standard diagnostic tests for malaria detect specific DNA sequences from malaria parasites in the blood, using methods based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Unfortunately, PCR often requires expensive lab equipment such as fridges and thermocyclers, which are impractical and costly for rural impoverished regions. In contrast, cheaper field tests often suffer from low sensitivity.

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The Scottish researchers have devised a new field test that could offer the best of both worlds. The test, unveiled in the journal PNAS, works by placing a blood sample onto special strips of paper and folding them like origami, enabling users to extract DNA from the sample. From the extracted DNA, genetic material from the malarial parasite can then be amplified and then detected simply through heating, without needing expensive equipment, meaning that screening can take place in the field.

When trialed on blood samples from schoolchildren in Uganda, the paper test was able to detect malaria species in 98% of infected samples, which was on par with PCR-based techniques and better than the 86% detected with the currently available field techniques.

malaria paper origami diagnosis university of glasgow

An example of the paper test. (Top) the blood sample goes on the second spot from the right, and the bigger spot folds under it (middle) to collect the waste. (Bottom) after discarding the waste, the researcher can then fold over the other panels to extract the DNA.

This is the first time that point-of-need, low-cost DNA diagnostics have been carried out in under-served low resource communities,” Jonathan Cooper, the lead researcher in the study, told me.

The technology has received some commercial interest, but the group has its own ideas for commercializing the test. “We plan to start a not-for-profit organization to bring employment and benefits in Uganda,” Cooper said.

In the meantime, the group is also building on this technology to expand its use to human and animal diseases such as hepatitis C.

The World Health Organization has warned that malaria is making a comeback after years of decline, especially in Africa. Therefore there is a big need for biotechs and researchers to step up and help the fight against this disease.

European biotechs are helping to combat tropical diseases such as malaria in a number of innovative ways. For example, the UK biotech Oxitec is releasing genetically engineered mosquitoes that can reduce the population and curb the spread of malaria. The Swedish company Modus Therapeutics is also developing a drug that could treat malaria by unblocking blood vessels, which can get obstructed by infected red blood cells. 


Images from Shutterstock and Niall P. Macdonald (Dublin City University, Dublin)

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