At present, diagnosing malaria can be a difficult process involving powerful microscopes and careful scanning of blood samples for tiny parasites in a technique discovered in 1880. But a more accessible method may be in the works. A team of Australian scientists has discovered that certain chemicals are present and can be detected in the breath of sufferers, raising the possibility of a cheap breath test to diagnose the deadly disease.
Researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) were working with a group of subjects given controlled malaria infections who had volunteered to be part of studies to develop new treatments. When examining the breath of these infected volunteers, the scientists observed heightened levels of a number of chemicals that are normally almost undetectable.
More specifically, these chemicals were four sulphur-containing compounds that had not been associated with any disease in the past. The team found that the levels of these compounds fluctuated over time in a way that correlated with the severity of the malaria infection, before effectively disappearing once they were cured. The fact that the compounds were detected at the very beginning of the infection has the researchers hopeful the technique could result in quicker diagnoses.
"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," says Dr Stephen Trowell, Research Group Leader at CSIRO. "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."
Although the compounds were detected using a "sophisticated analytical instrument," the researchers are working to develop sensitive, yet inexpensive "biosensors" that specifically target the compounds and could be used in clinics and in the field.
The team's study appears in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.