Goal: Needle-free malaria diagnosis

Richards-Kortum to pursue next phase of research

A Rice University scientist continues to make progress toward defeating malaria with her research on how to diagnose the disease through a needle-free process.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and director of Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies, hopes to develop a test that diagnoses malaria through a needle-free process with a handheld device. The test could be administered by untrained personnel and deliver immediate results.

This week she received Phase II support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through its Grand Challenges Explorations program for this research.

“Malaria causes an estimated 655,000 deaths each year,” Richards-Kortum said. “Accurate, accessible diagnostics are essential to malaria control and eradication, but the current procedure is cumbersome, requiring a blood draw, slide preparation and examination of the sample under a microscope by a trained technician. Our goal is to develop an inexpensive, battery-powered microscope that can detect the malaria parasite without drawing blood.”

In 2009, Richards-Kortum won Phase I funding from the foundation for “bold ideas to address persistent health and development challenges.”

To earn Phase II support, her lab had to prove significant advances toward the stated goal. In the past three years, she said, her lab at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative has achieved two milestones: first, characterizing the optical properties of normal and infected red blood cells, and second, detecting the optical signatures of malaria parasites in the superficial vascular system with a tabletop microscope.

The next phase will be to develop and test a portable, battery-powered microscope for diagnosis, which Richards-Kortum hopes will lead, eventually, to clinical validation with patients.

“The technology we are developing is similar to what is already used for malaria diagnosis in that it relies on imaging parasitized red blood cells for diagnosis. We hope this will speed translation into a clinical setting,” Richards-Kortum said.

The new grant is one of a set of Phase II grants announced by the foundation this week.

“A test that does not require a blood draw has the potential to transform the way that malaria is diagnosed in the developing world, where facilities may lack personnel, consumables and infrastructure,” Richards-Kortum said. “A test like this could also pave the way for the development of other noninvasive methods of analyzing blood.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.