May 25, 2018

UCalgary researchers develop field test for drug-resistant malaria

The point-of-care test can confirm a resistant malaria diagnosis in an hour

Author

Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

University of Calgary researchers Abu Naser Mohon, left, and Dylan Pillai developed the field test that can be performed anywhere.

Abu Naser Mohon, left, and Dylan Pillai developed the field test that can be performed anywhere.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The number of drug-resistant malaria cases is increasing — posing a serious world health threat. Two University of Calgary scientists believe they have a way to combat the rise in mosquito-borne illnesses with a new, fast, and efficient way to diagnosis the drug-resistant form of the disease in its earliest stage.

Dr. Dylan Pillai and Abu Naser Mohon, PhD candidate, members of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) have developed an inexpensive field test that can be performed anywhere, without the need for electricity or specialized lab equipment. The kit is portable and battery powered. Results are available in an hour, allowing health-care workers to administer the right treatment to patients sooner.

“This test is very sensitive, up to 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional tests involving the use of labs and microscopes,” says Pillai, associate professor at the CSM.  “Part of the problem with drug-resistant malaria is that current tests can’t diagnose the disease early on and confirming the diagnosis can take days or even weeks. Those people with drug-resistant infections often get the wrong treatment, get sicker, and sometimes die.”

The UCalgary team took inspiration from a method called loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) and modified it in a unique way to detect drug-resistant mutations.

“Recently, scientists discovered a particular gene that causes or is linked to artemisinin resistance — the primary drug used worldwide to treat malaria,” says Mohon. “We’ve developed a test that can detect that resistance at the molecular level. It’s basically a DNA-based test.”

The team hopes to test the kit in the field soon to validate the findings seen in the lab.

The field testing kit is portable and can be set up anywhere. It is battery powered and does not require electricity or use of a lab.

The field testing kit is portable and can be set up anywhere.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Research aimed at protecting moms and babies from malaria

Using the same technology, the team has also developed a new diagnostic test for low-level infections of malaria.  

“This test can detect infections in people who are asymptomatic, which is a huge concern as these individuals represent the hidden human reservoir for malaria,” says Pillai. “They don’t seek treatment, because they don’t feel sick — meanwhile, they get bitten by a mosquito and the disease continues to spread.”

The team is traveling to Ethiopia in June to study how early diagnosis and treatment of malaria affects the health of pregnant women and their babies.

The World Health Organization (WHO) identified pregnant women as one of the groups at highest risk of dying from complications of the disease. Once in the blood, the parasite likes to infect the placenta. According to the WHO, malaria is also a cause of miscarriages, premature deliveries and low birth weights.

The UCalgary team is collaborating with health-care providers in Ethiopia who will follow women from the first trimester of their pregnancy to birth.

“I will be training doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners how to use the kit,” says James Cheaveau, master’s student in microbiology and infectious diseases at the CSM. “The beauty is that you don’t need to be a trained technologist to use this diagnostic tool.”

One barrier to adopting new forms of rapid diagnostics has been the cost. This technology attempts to make it cheaper and affordable. The objective is to bring the cost of a single test to under $5. 

Dr. Pillai’s research is supported by Grand Challenges Canada, Calgary Laboratory Services, Medicines for Malaria Venture, Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), as well as industry partners. Pillai is an associate professor in the departments of Pathology and Laboratory MedicineMedicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the CSM.

Cumming School of Medicine student James Cheaveau will train doctors and nurses in Ethiopia how to use the kit.

Medicine student James Cheaveau will train doctors and nurses in Ethiopia how to use the kit.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary