It looks like a Band-Aid — a small, adhesive patch that is applied directly to the skin. This simple, low-cost diagnostic technology, however, could be a lifesaver in regions where malaria continues to be a major killer. Researchers describe the new innovation in a study, recently published in Nature’s Microsystems & Nanoengineering.
Malaria is a serious, mosquito-borne disease prevalent in over 90 countries across the globe, with the highest risk in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, an estimated 228 million had this life-threatening disease that is caused by Plasmodium parasites which are transmitted to humans via female Anopheles mosquitoes. The disease is preventable and curable, and the hope that cost-effective point-of-care diagnostic technologies are the missing pieces required to help save millions of lives.
The microneedle patch developed by scientists at Rice University works by detecting malaria in the interstitial fluid (a thin layer of fluid that surrounds the body’s cells). A series of hollow needles painlessly penetrate the skin and draw up this interstitial fluid into the test strip. Here, antibodies detect the presence of protein biomarkers of malaria and produce a colored visual output indicating a positive or a negative result. When manufactured in bulk, the device is estimated to cost around $1 each.
Peter Lillehoj, one of the inventors of the patch said: “Xue and I have applied the patch to our skin, and it doesn’t feel painful at all compared to a finger prick or a blood draw.”
“It’s less painful than getting a splinter. I would say it feels like putting tape on your skin and then peeling it off.”
According to Lillehoj, such technology has tremendous potential beyond the scope of malaria diagnostics. “In this paper, we focus on malaria detection because this project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and it’s a big priority for them,” said Lillehoj.
“But we can adapt this technology to detect other diseases for which biomarkers appear in interstitial fluid.”