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A DIY 'Just-add-water' Malaria Detection Kit is Ready to Launch

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The following text is a script from a recent radio interview on ABC Radio Darwin, Australia, as reported by Katherine Gregory.

Imagine if there was a quick way of testing for diseases like malaria or TB that didn’t require a laboratory, something that is often hard to find in remote locations or developing countries with limited medical resources.

Scientists from the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) are just about to launch a just-add-water tool kit, that they say can do just that – as Katherine Gregory reports:

It sounds almost as easy as a packet cake mix. Just add water, and in moments, a disease can be detected.

(Dr Lee Alissandratos): “The test itself is essentially a freeze-dried preparation, it’s quite stable so it can be transported and stored for long time periods of time, and all it requires is the addition of a few drops of water for it to be activated.”

Dr Lee Alissandratos from the ANU School of Chemistry has been developing this new diagnostic tool with fellow CSIRO scientists. He explains that once activated, the test is mixed with a sample, like someone’s blood for example:

“It is able to pick up very small amounts of a particular DNA sequence from a pathogen and produce a signal.”

That signal is then picked up by either the naked eye or technologies like a phone app, to indicate whether a certain disease is present in the sample:

“So the basis of the detection would be colorimetric. Essentially the lowest cost device is by eye, and in some cases depending on the actual specimen that’s being used, you might need to use like a phone camera or something like that, in combination with an app.”

The kit is designed to pick up a range of pathogens in humans, animals and plants, but it will first be used to detect malaria, which kills almost half a million people worldwide each year, mostly in developing countries.

Dr Lee Alissandratos believes the kit will be a game changer: “Currently these sorts of tests are only used in centralized laboratories because they typically rely on complex protocols or a skilled technician, so this is ideal for use by unskilled workers in remote settings.”

Dr Cameron Webb is a medical entomologist at the University of Sydney and he specializes in malaria: “A kit like this that is being proposed is really exciting. Most importantly it removes some of the barriers to the effective use of some of the tests that we already have. So some of the tests that generally rely on blood samples now, rely on either the availability of certain bits of equipment, or access to refrigerators, or even microscopes to have a look at blood samples for the for the malaria parasite itself.”

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the kit will be rolled out in remote areas and developing countries in the next 18 months.

Report by Katherine Gregory, ABC Darwin.