Malaria is a hard disease to treat — but it's even harder to detect. A new breakthrough uses a technology similar to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that essentially detects parasite poop in the blood of infected patients to provide a reliable diagnosis.
The research team from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research (SMART) detects a parasitic waste product called hemozoin, reports EurekaAlert. When the parasites infect red blood cells, they feed on the nutrient-rich hemoglobin carried by the cells. As hemoglobin breaks down, it releases iron, which can be toxic, so the parasite converts the iron into hemozoin — a weakly paramagnetic crystallite. According to the report:
Those crystals interfere with the normal magnetic spins of hydrogen atoms. When exposed to a powerful magnetic field, hydrogen atoms align their spins in the same direction. When a second, smaller field perturbs the atoms, they should all change their spins in synchrony — but if another magnetic particle, such as hemozoin, is present, this synchrony is disrupted through a process called relaxation. The more magnetic particles are present, the more quickly the synchrony is disrupted.
It's a clever little combo of physics, chemistry and biology. The current prototype of the machine that's used too achieve this is small enough to sit on a table or a bench, but the researchers are working to get it down to the size of an iPad.
The best part is that unlike the current method of testing for malaria, which involves drawing a syringe-full of blood from a patients vein, smearing it across a glass slide and staining it with a special dye to look for the malaria parasite, the SMART system requires less than 10 microlitres of blood — just a pinprick is enough. [EurekaAlert]