By Jim Malo. Edited for online by Joseph Cooney.

A new development in the detection of malaria in its early stages is a step forward in fighting the deadly disease.

Research out of Monash University is looking to bring a cheap and easy-to-use technology to developing nations affected by the disease.

Around 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria. Photo credit: James Gathany
Around 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria. Photo credit: James Gathany

Associate Professor Bayden Wood is at the forefront of development of a new device aimed at detecting deadly malaria parasites in blood.

The technology is designed to be affordable, as well as easy to use.

All patients need to give up is a small amount of blood, and the rest is fairly simple.

“All that’s needed is someone to be able to take the blood and put it on the little crystal on the instrument,” Prof Wood said.

“Then you dry it and just push the button and it records the spectrum – and everything then is automated.”

Infrared light is then used to excite molecular vibrations, which can map out the chemistry of blood cells and expose an infection from malarial parasites.

Professor Wood says researchers were surprised with how well their new device could detect infections.

“Lo and behold, we can get this excellent sensitivity,” Prof Wood said.

“We kept on diluting the samples, and diluting the samples, and we could still see the parasite signature.

“So this was down to one parasite per microlitre, or one in a million.”

The process this device uses is not exactly new, but the application of different techniques is what sets this apart.

“What we came up with was this technique called Attenuated Total Reflection, which has been around for ages, and it’s just a standard type of technique used in a chemistry laboratory, but no one ever tried it on malaria until we came along,” Prof Wood said.

Professor Louis Schofield, director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, is also helping to develop ways to fight malaria.

He says Professor Wood is going in the right direction.

“I think it’s important to do to get early diagnosis of malaria,” Prof Schofield said.

“It’s certainly the authors that should be commended for trying to work up this technology.”

Professor Schofield says the idea is solid, but he is looking forward for field testing to begin.

“I can’t really comment on whether the technology is going to deliver the goods, so to speak, because it really needs to be taken to clinical trial,” Prof Schofield said.

“The authors plan to do trials in Thailand, so that will be the decisive factor, but certainly it’s promising.”

The commercialisation of his device is still a few years off, but Associate Professor Wood is looking further into the future.

“Hopefully one day we can put it on an app, and have a portable little spectrometer in an iPhone,” Prof Wood said.

“And that’d be the coolest.”