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Measuring malaria on your breath

By , 27 February 2017

A scientist standing near a computer, analysing malaria.

CSIRO scientist Amalia Berna and her team are developing a new way to diagnose malaria.

It’s really annoying to get bitten by a mosquito. Your skin often swells, and the bite can itch for days. But in many places in the world, that small bite isn’t just annoying. It can cause a life-threatening disease: malaria.

Malaria is a very tricky disease. Once you are infected, it can take weeks before you start to feel sick. Even then, malaria feels just like the ‘flu. Blood tests are expensive, and it can take several days to get the results, so most people don’t get tested. They just stay home and wait to get better. Sadly, not everyone recovers – malaria kills almost half a million people worldwide each year.

For Amalia Berna, the call to action was irresistible.

“When I saw the numbers – how many children die – I thought, ‘This is terrible!’ And we in CSIRO have the tools to save lives.”

So Amalia and her team set to work developing a new way to diagnose malaria.

Amalia’s specialty is detecting and analysing volatile chemicals. That might sound scary, but it’s actually quite sweet. Volatile chemicals are ones that turn to gas at around room temperature – and that includes all the chemicals that we can smell.

“When I started at CSIRO, we were doing a lot of aroma analysis of wines and grapes,” explains Amalia. “It was beautiful.”

The scientific expertise Amalia’s team developed while studying these sweet smells would later prove very useful.

“We built a huge capability to measure volatiles in human breath,” she says. “For me, it was very easy to use that knowledge for grapes and wines and transfer the capability into health.”

Amalia identified several chemicals in the breath that indicated a malaria infection. The first laboratory tests of these chemicals, known as biomarkers, have been very successful.

“We are able to identify malaria cases before there are symptoms,” Amalia reveals.

The team are now collecting and analysing breath samples from people in the field, to make sure the technique will work outside the lab. But there’s still a lot of work to do before the test can be developed into a cheap, quick tool to diagnose malaria.

“At the moment we are using a very sophisticated, expensive machine,” explains Amalia. “But if we are successful in our validation, we will build a miniaturised sensor that people can blow into and it will tell you yes or no. That’s the end goal.”

Amalia knows that it will take several years of hard work to reach this goal. But she also knows that it’s worth it. As she says: “I’m proud to be part of a team that’s trying to help the world.”

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