Rice University logoDr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum
 
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Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory
 
 

Bloodless coup

Gates Foundation backs BRC research into needle-free malaria test

BY MIKE WILLIAMS
Rice News staff

Malaria kills millions of people each year and infects hundreds of millions more, and the most common way to diagnose it is to take a close look at a patient's blood.

That won't change with a new device proposed by Rice's Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Tomasz Tkaczyk. What will change is that the blood can stay inside the body.

The Richards-Kortum lab at Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative has won a $100,000 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant through its Grand Challenges Explorations program to develop reagent-free, needle-free microscopy for malaria diagnosis.

Richards-Kortum, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and director of Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies, described the project as "high-risk science."

"It would be extraordinary to have a pulse oximeter-type device for detecting malaria, but it's an enormous challenge," she said. Such a device would pay great dividends, though. She estimated it could be built for less than $100, which would make the tests essentially free.

Currently, detecting malaria generally means taking a patient's blood, staining it and analyzing it under a microscope to see if the person is infected. The Rice technique would require no taking of blood, would produce no waste and wouldn't require trained personnel to either administer the test or read results.

Richards-Kortum said an alternative method to test for malaria, a rapid detection kit similar to a home-pregnancy test produces waste, takes some expertise to administer and time to analyze and even at $1 costs too much for clinics in developing nations.

What she and Tkaczyk, an assistant professor in bioengineering, plan to investigate would be far more efficient, not to mention elegant. One version of the proposed portable device would clip to a patient's finger and peer through the skin at superficial blood vessels. It would light up red and white blood cells flowing through the vessels, read and analyze light reflected back and immediately deliver a diagnosis.

"When the malaria parasite infects red cells, its DNA makes a little ring inside. It's very characteristic -- a little circle inside the cell," she explained. "When it infects white blood cells, it produces a crystal called hemozoin."

She said both have very strong light-scattering properties that can be detected optically. "So now we have the challenge of going under the skin," she said. "We happen to have a lot of expertise in high-resolution imaging in people from our cancer-screening projects, and we think we can use that expertise to image the blood vessels themselves."

Richards-Kortum said her lab will also look for a way to image blood vessels in the eye. "There you get direct access to capillaries without having to deal with all the overlying light scattering (from skin)," she said.

If the lab can show convincing data from prototypes, there's a possibility the Gates Foundation will fund more extensive research, she said.