Experts to develop mobile phone malaria detector

Published: 5 July 2011

The University of Glasgow has received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further help in the diagnosis of Malaria.

The University of Glasgow has received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further help in the diagnosis of malaria.

The $100,000 award will go towards developing a device which uses mobile-phone derived technology that can detect and separate red blood cells infected with malaria parasites. 

It is hoped that if successful, devices based on the technology could be mass produced for rapid and accurate malaria diagnosis.

The project team comprises Jon Cooper, Professor of Bioelectronics and Bioengineering of the College of Science and Engineering, Mike Barrett, Professor of Biochemical Parasitology and Senior Lecturer, Dr Lisa Ranford-Cartwright, both of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences.

The study will exploit Surface Acoustic Waves (SAWS) devices which are electronic components commonly found in TVs, mobile phones and other electronic display devices.

Prof Cooper has been using these acoustic devices to develop new technologies for medical diagnostics for a number of years. The Glasgow team now proposes to use SAWS to exert selective forces on malaria infected red blood cells to separate them from uninfected red cells.

Different cells respond to SAWs in different ways depending on their physical properties including their elasticity and their shape. Since malaria parasites cause red cells to alter their elasticity and their shape they should respond differently to SAWs at particular frequencies.  The team hopes to produce a handheld device which can identify infected cells quickly and cleanly.

Prof Cooper said: “Diagnosing malaria can be a difficult and often time consuming procedure because so few blood cells actually carry the parasite. Sometimes, it can take a couple of hours to secure a positive or negative result on a blood sample.

“Moreover, developing a reliable, portable diagnostic tool is not only important for the individual concerned, but it is also important in preventing the spread of drug resistance in the parasites.”

Dr Ranford-Cartwright added: “In the developing world, where human expertise and medical resources are in short supply, patients presenting with physical symptoms are assumed to have malaria without being given a blood test. They then receive drugs inappropriately. As drug levels fall to sub-curative levels they may then get infected, which creates perfect conditions to select for drug resistance.”

The latest award is part of the Grand Challenges Explorations (GSE) program: a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, it supports innovative research that has the potential to dramatically improve lives in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The $100,000 grants enable researchers worldwide to test unorthodox ideas that address persistent health and development challenge. Grand Challenge Explorations grants have already been awarded to nearly 500 researchers from over 40 countries.  Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.

Malaria kills more than one million people annually and claims the life of a child every 30 seconds. Most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of south-east Asia, combating the disease is one of the WHO’s Millennium Development Goals.

Symptoms are similar to flu, but it falciparum malaria can progress to severe forms, including cerebral malaria including coma, seizures and severe anaemia. Severe Plasmodium falciparum is responsible for the majority of deaths. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of the disease before severe malaria develops is key to reducing fatalities.

The University of Glasgow actively promotes interdisciplinary research across its different Colleges.

For Prof Cooper, who has been using SAW technology in developing diagnostics for other diseases, including tuberculosis, the opportunity to team up with parasitologists Prof Barrett and Dr Ranford-Cartwright to investigate adapting the technology for malaria, was facilitated through the internal Kelvin-Smith award scheme set up to encourage such interdisciplinary research.

For more information contact Stuart Forsyth in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 4831 or email

First published: 5 July 2011

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