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Red blood cells infected with
malaria parasites
A new high-tech approach to determine whether, and to what extent, a person is infected with malaria could help to improve treatment of the killer disease, say researchers.

A study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry shows that mass spectrometry — an analytical technique that is used to identify and quantify compounds — can identify the presence of malaria parasites. Moreover, the technique is so sensitive that it can detect as few as ten parasites per microlitre of blood.

While circulating in the human blood stream, malaria parasites grow inside red blood cells and break down haemoglobin inside the cells. After the haemoglobin has been digested by the parasites, the oxygen-carrying haem group remains. This haem group is very easily detectable by mass spectrometry, and is used to indicate the presence of the parasites.

The current standard way to diagnose malaria is to count parasites in stained blood smears using a microscope. This technique is difficult to perform, and its sensitivity is often less than the 100 parasites per microlitre of blood recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The high sensitivity of the mass spectrometry technique, and the fact that it can determine not only whether patients are infected with the malaria parasite, but also how badly they are infected, suggests that it could be a better diagnostic test. But whether or not the technique will be feasible in remote areas of poor countries has yet to be explored.

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Link to Nature News and Views article

Photo credit: WHO/TDR/Pasteur Inst.
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