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A Handheld Device that Detects Malaria in 30 Minutes

Scientists at the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) are developing a handheld device that can detect malaria in 30 minutes.

The project, which is in a proof-of-concept stage, is supported by a biotechnology “ignition grant” from the Indian government’s Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (Birac).

The device is being developed by a team of researchers led by Sai Siva Gorthi, an assistant professor at the Department of Instrumention and Applied Physics, IISc and incubated at the institute’s Robert Bosch Centre for Cyber Physical Systems (RBCCPS).

Gorthi’s team is working towards a low-cost diagnostic instrument that takes in a droplet of blood, analyses individual cells, and detects cells that are infected with malaria.

“We are tremendously excited about this simple yet incredible device that can fully automate the complete workflow of clinical microscopy, making accurate diagnosis of malaria far more accessible than it has been before,” said Parama Pal, head of healthcare at RBCCPS.

In 2013, India saw more than 800,000 cases of malaria, with 359 deaths, according to the ministry of health and family welfare. At present, the Indian government recommends the use of microscopy or a rapid diagnostic test, both of which take at least 24 hours to come up with the results.

“Our approach combines various technologies like image processing, microfluidics and microscopy. It’s essentially a pathology lab-on-a-device for malaria diagnosis,” said Gorthi.

When compared with traditional diagnostic methods, the device collects a significantly low amount of blood, about 200 nanolitres, which can contain about one million blood cells. The device analyses each cell in this droplet of blood and gives a visual representation as well as quantitative count of the malaria-affected cells.

The handheld device has a common optical reader into which the user can slide in a new replaceable microfluidic cartridge when a test has to be performed. This cartridge is loaded with a set of compounds to carry out automated on-chip processing of the blood sample. The affected blood cells display structural features that are different from normal cells, which can be seen on the device’s LCD display.

“The algorithms we have developed run on a smartphone-like platform and do this evaluation automatically. It doesn’t require the intervention of a skilled technician. While the qualitative test results can be known instantaneously, quantitative parasitemia levels are assessed and displayed in about 30 minutes,” said Gorthi.

The scientists also believe that this portable handheld device can be modified for diagnosing other diseases as well.

“What we have is a generic platform to automate the diagnostic process. To detect variety of other haematological disorders, such as spherocytosis, sickle cell anaemia, we just need to upgrade the software of the same device to let it run corresponding image processing algorithms that we are developing,” said Gorthi.

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