Researchers develop a low-cost bandage test for rapid malaria test

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Researchers at Rice University have developed a microneedle patch that can rapidly detect the presence of malaria in interstitial fluid. Users can apply the patch to their skin, as you would a bandage, and then obtain a result in as little as 20 minutes. The technology is low-cost and requires no expertise to utilize.

Malaria is a significant killer in many parts of the world where access to medical services is limited or non-existent. Obtaining a laboratory-based malaria diagnosis is challenging or impossible for many people living in such regions. Low-cost, point-of-care diagnostic alternatives are clearly needed, and this latest technology may fulfill these criteria.

Containing a 4 x 4 array of hollow microneedles, the patch gently penetrates the skin when applied and draws interstitial fluid inside itself, where an antibody-based lateral-flow test strip detects protein biomarkers of malaria. The device provides an easy to read visual result in the form of colored strips, similar to a pregnancy test, in about 20 minutes.

At only 375 microns wide, the microneedles are truly tiny, and do not cause significant pain on insertion. They are hydrophilic, and so easily draw interstitial fluid into the device. “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,” said Peter Lillehoj, a researcher involved in the study, in a Rice University press release. “It’s less painful than getting a splinter. I would say it feels like putting tape on your skin and then peeling it off.”

Interestingly, the bandage may also be useful in detecting other diseases, including COVID-19. “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.”

The researchers estimate that the device may cost as little as $1 if manufactured in bulk, suggesting that it may be useful in low resource regions. Its appearance as a bandage helps to make it more relatable and less daunting for non-clinical users and not scary for the patients getting screened.

“We didn’t intend for it to look like a bandage,” said Lillehoj. “We started with a rectangular shape and then just rounded the edges to make it a little more presentable. We didn’t plan for that, but perhaps it makes the patch more relatable to the general public.”