Anti-missile tech could help combat malaria

Heat-seeking technology developed for the military's Javelin missile program might soon be used to save rather than destroy.

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Taking aim at the malaria parasite with Javelin missile technology. Rodney Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

In June of 1996, a new kind of anti-tank weapon was deployed in the US military. It was called the Javelin and was a missile launcher that could be shoulder-fired or launched from atop a range of vehicles. Javelin first saw major action in Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April 2003, and it's currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Now, the technology that gives the Javelin missile its heat-seeking capability is being developed for use in another battle: the fight against malaria.

Researchers at Monash University and the University of Melborne in Australia have used a detector called a Focal Plane Array (FPA) to identify the very first stages of malaria in a sample size as small as a single blood cell. The detector, originally designed for use in the Javelin system, was linked to an infrared imaging microscope where it transmitted the infrared signals of the fatty acids in the malaria parasite.


More critically, according to the researchers, it was able to provide its reading of the bug at an earlier stage than previous methods -- even before people show signs of the disease. It is also able to output results in just four minutes, making it a valuable on-the-spot diagnostic tool.

"There are some excellent tests that diagnose malaria," said lead researcher, Monash University Associate Professor Bayden Wood, in a statement. "However, the sensitivity is limited and the best methods require hours of input from skilled microscopists, and that's a problem in developing countries where malaria is most prevalent."

"In many countries, only people who display signs of malaria are treated," added co-researcher professor Leann Tilley from the University of Melbourne. "But the problem with this approach is that some people don't have typical flu-like symptoms associated with malaria, and this means a reservoir of parasites persists that can reemerge and spread very quickly within a community," she said.

All this means that tech originally meant to destroy could be a critical tool in saving lives by combating the disease, which is one of the top three killers of children worldwide, according to the nonprofit Malaria No More organization. If doctors can detect the malaria parasite in the blood early and quickly, they will be better able to fight it.

"Our test detects malaria at its very early stages, so that doctors can stop the disease in its tracks before it takes hold and kills. We believe this sets the gold standard for malaria testing," Associate Professor Wood said.

The breakthrough follows the announcement earlier this year of a method of using laser pulses to detect the sound of popping nanobubbles produced as a result of the malaria parasite's feeding cycle to detect the bugs in the bloodstream. It's the same technology a destroyer would use to detect a submarine, which again shows an example of how military tech could help fight more than just enemy combatants on the field.

The researchers' work has recently been published in the journal Analytical Chemistry. Their next step is working with a researcher from a university in Thailand to test out their detection method in hospital clinics there.

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About the author

Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for Crave and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.

 

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