Malaria may soon be accurately detected through a simple breath test. The handheld device, which resembles a Breathalyzer, is up for field testing in Malaysia, Sudan, and Bangladesh.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the Australian agency behind this technology, will be conducting an 18-month field trial. The trial will involve collecting breath samples from patients suspected of having malaria. These will then be compared with samples from a control group.

The Australian agency will work in cooperation with American partners after receiving US$1.4 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Stephen Trowell, research group leader at CSIRO, said if the first phase of the research pans out, they will be moving towards developing a simple, painless and inexpensive breath test that should be able to identify people with malaria but are unaware of it.

This simple breath test promises to facilitate easier and cheaper malaria diagnosis – it costs less than the routine laboratory tests, does not require technical expertise to conduct, and can detect the disease at an early stage.

Detecting biomarkers in breath, according to Iveth González, head of the Malaria & Acute Febrile Syndrome Program at the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, will be an easier method to diagnose malaria.

Ailie Robinson, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added that having a field-based diagnostic tool that only detects active infection would be extremely useful in helping to detect asymptomatic individuals with low-level infection.

Additionally, the new diagnostic method can ensure more accurate and targeted administration of drugs thus preventing potential cases of drug resistance.

Dr. Audrey Odom, assistant professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, admitted that they were not even certain if the 300 million doses of malaria treatment being given every year go to those who really need them.

“We want to judiciously use antimicrobial and antimalarials only on the people that really need them,” she said.

She believes a low cost diagnostic test that can be disseminated more widely would allow them to preserve antimalarials only for the children who need them which would let them work longer.

This new technology follows a series of laboratory breakthroughs where different volatile organic compounds were found to be associated with malaria.

These compounds, collectively called biomarkers, are not known to be associated with any other disease. As such, they are considered to be the molecular signature of malaria.

While still in development, the prospect of using biomarkers for diagnostics remains attractive. “We really envision this working just like a Breathalyzer test when you get pulled over for drunk driving,” said Odom. MIMS