A start-up for malaria testing
A start-up for malaria testing
Gabriela Figueroa Miranda (right) and Viviana Rincón Montes want to launch an innovative malaria testing device.
Malaria is one of the most common infectious diseases worldwide. An innovative rapid diagnostic test from Jülich can detect it quickly and reliably. This increases the chances of recovery.
Asmall prick of the needle in the finger is all it takes: the new test device analyzes the drop of blood welling up and immediately determines whether the tested person has malaria with the same easy and quick technique as blood sugar tests. Around 220 million people worldwide contract malaria every year, mostly in Africa. According to the Robert Koch Institute, over half a million people die, mostly children under five.
Picture above: Gabriela Figueroa Miranda (right) and Viviana Rincón Montes want to launch an innovative malaria testing device.
One of the most effective strategies to change this would be nationwide rapid testing. If an infection with a malaria parasite is detected early enough, it can be treated and cured. Biomedical engineer Dr. Gabriela Figueroa Miranda from the Institute of Biological Information Processing (IBI-3) is developing a new biosensor that general practitioners or even patients themselves can use to do a test without complicated pre-treatment. “The device is intended to be easy to use by anyone at home, in schools and hospitals. It consists of a single-use chip sensor that is dipped into the patient’s drop of blood and a small and reusable portable reader that a doctor can carry in his or her coat pocket at all times,” says Figueroa Miranda.
The most reliable detection method to date has been PCR tests, but these are not very suitable for rapid detection. They require cleaning steps, analytical equipment, reagents and are also time-consuming. Other rapid diagnostic tests that detect malaria through antibodies only provide reliable results from 200 parasites per microlitre. The malaria biosensor developed by the Jülich researchers has already succeeded in detecting 50 parasites per microlitre, thus exceeding the standards required by the World Health Organization.
For her new rapid diagnostic test, Figueroa Miranda relies on so-called aptamers, which she has been researching for six years. Behind this somewhat unwieldy name is an artificially created DNA molecule that, like antibodies, attaches itself to proteins and generates a measurable signal. The researcher uses a special aptamer that detects malaria. It attaches itself to proteins of the plasmodium parasites responsible for triggering the febrile illness. In contrast to antibodies in previously common rapid diagnostic tests, aptamers are very stable over a long period of time and insensitive to environmental influences.
In order to turn basic research into a marketable product, the scientist plans to found a start-up together with her colleague Dr. Viviana Rincon Montes. “I didn’t just want to develop a biosensor in the lab, I wanted to bring a wearable device to series production,” says Figueroa Miranda. The two are already working on turning the current laboratory device into a handy prototype about the size of a blood glucose meter.
From the lab into practice
Their rapid diagnostic test is to be used in countries that greatly suffer from malaria, especially in Africa, Asia and South America. She thus asked NGOs, research institutes and clinics what is important for it to be accepted. “Our test meets all the criteria mentioned. It’s robust, easy to use, displays accurate values and is also affordable,” says Figueroa Miranda. There is another advantage, however. While, with the previous tests, the persons tested could only find out whether or not they were infected, the new test also reveals the amount of the pathogen present and which of the two most common types of pathogens live in the blood – doing so even in the early stages of the disease. The Jülich researcher makes it clear: “With this knowledge, the doctor can treat the patient faster and with more appropriate medication.” This can save lives.
The project presentation by the researchers at this year’s Jülich end-of-year lecture evening can be found here.
Gold detects pathogens
Tiny gold beads lie on a glass slide, covered with a drop of blood. Every now and then a small flash of light comes on. “This is the sign that the beads have just tracked down a protein of the malaria parasite,” says Dr. Dirk Mayer (pictured), group leader at the Institute of Biological Information Processing (IBI-3). He, too, is working on methods to detect malaria. However, he is taking a different approach than his colleague Gabriela Figueroa Miranda. His goal is not a test kit for quick, on-site diagnoses, but a concept for a fundamentally new method to detect even the smallest amounts of pathogens. He measures optical instead of electrical signals. To this end, he uses small metal spheres on which he attaches antibodies and aptamers as a kind of sniffer dog. If they detect a malaria pathogen, a tiny flash of light is produced. “The spheres are arranged in a honeycomb-shaped grid. This honeycomb field amplifies the small flashes of light so that even the slightest traces of infection are visually indicated,” he explains. His method detects the disease if there are 50 malaria parasites in one microlitre of blood. It measures whole-blood samples without complicated pre-treatment and is therefore simpler and faster than a PCR test.
Another advantage: “In principle, the method also works for highthroughput measurements, where tens of thousands of samples are tested simultaneously and automatically,” explains the Jülich researcher. It could also be used to quickly and simultaneously test many blood samples for other diseases caused by viruses and bacteria, such as influenza or COVID-19.
Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau, Forschungszentrum Jülich/Ralf-Uwe Limbach