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20th July 2017

Discovering malaria’s ‘fingerprint

New invention promises faster and more accurate diagnosis

Malaria kills one person every 12 seconds. Think about that for a moment. That’s five per minute.

Almost half the world’s population lives in areas at risk of malaria. Hardly surprising then that more than 200 million cases are recorded every year.

One of the big challenges in reducing malaria deaths is early and accurate diagnosis. In many cases, the disease is diagnosed too late or confused with other infections. Now, a clever new invention could help solve this problem.

Dutch Jan van den Boogaarts and Austrian biochemist Oliver Hayden at Siemens Healthineers have developed the world’s first automatic blood test for malaria. The system is based on a computer algorithm that detects tell-tale signs of the disease with unprecedented accuracy.

It allows scientists to place a blood sample in an automated blood analysis device which gives a result in half a minute. Crucially, the results are 97% accurate – much better than the current test of diagnosing malaria which requires lab scientists to look at a spot of blood under a microscope.

‘Within 30 seconds we can count 40,000 blood cells so it’s much more accurate than looking down a microscope where you see just a couple of hundred cells – if you’re lucky,’ says Jan.

There’s another big difference: Instead of looking only at red blood cells (which are the type of cells infected by the malaria parasite), the new approach focuses on how platelets and white blood cells are affected by malaria infection. Changes to platelets are too small to see under a microscope so the system is a major step forward.

By studying 500 different parameters in malaria-infected blood samples, Jan, Oliver and colleagues have identified a series of around 30 signature changes that accompany malaria infection.

If malaria is diagnosed early based on the disease’s fingerprint, doctors can intervene promptly and improve the chances of survival. This fingerprinting method can also be used for other conditions such as acute promyelocytic leukaemia.

‘With acute promyelocytic leukaemia, you have to be fast because a patient can die in a couple of hours,’ says Jan. ‘But if they are diagnosed quickly and given a vitamin preparation, 70% will recover.’

The tool has already been embraced by several labs in the Netherlands and is having an impact: ‘We are positive that we have saved some lives already,’ says Jan.

The breakthrough has caught the attention of expert at the European Patent Office (EPO) where Jan and Oliver are shortlisted for a European Inventor Award.

It is just one of thousands of patients filed by the medical technology sector every year. In fact, medtech companies filed more patent applications at the European Patent Office (EPO) in 2016 than any other industry. Yes, that’s more than digital communication, electronics or medicines.

Jan and Oliver are already hoping to use their approach for several other diseases – so expect more patents in the years ahead.