A jab to counter malaria

Two researchers in the lab
© Forschungszentrum Jülich

DAAD alumnae Dr Gabriela Figueroa Miranda and Dr Viviana Rincón Montes are working as postdocs at Forschungszentrum Jülich to develop a new and highly effective rapid test for malaria. They were accordingly honoured with the Innovation Award of the State of NRW in May 2022. 

Groundbreaking innovations are almost always the result of teamwork. As a young medical technician Gabriela Figueroa Miranda set about developing a novel rapid test for malaria as part of her doctoral thesis at RWTH Aachen University in 2016, it soon became clear to her that she couldn’t achieve this on her own. Her approach did certainly function exceedingly well under laboratory conditions. Yet she needed assistance to make her method applicable in everyday use. ‘And that’s when I thought about Viviana; I had recently come across her at a DAAD event in Bremen’, explains Figueroa Miranda.  

Like Figueroa Miranda, electrical engineer Viviana Rincón Montes also completed her PhD at RWTH Aachen University, but with a focus on intra-retinal implants.

Figueroa Miranda from Mexico first attended FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences with the help of a DAAD master's scholarship, and also received support from the DAAD with her PhD. A DAAD scholarship also enabled Rincón Montes from Columbia to come to Germany. The two of them soon joined forces. ‘Her background in electronics and microfabrication was simply a perfect complement to my expertise in biosensors and electrochemistry’, relates Figueroa Miranda. So they both started work on refining Figueroa Miranda’s idea and transferring the approach from the laboratory into practical application. The two women are currently working as postdocs in the Institute of Biological Information Processing – Bioelectronics (IBI-3) at Forschungszentrum Jülich. 

The current rapid tests don’t provide sufficient information

Malaria is one of the world’s oldest documented infectious diseases. The first cases were already recorded in Greece and China in the first millennium B.C. The disease now afflicts over 200 million people worldwide. During the outbreak of coronavirus in 2019, there were almost as many malaria cases registered as there were cases of COVID-19. At the moment, however, unlike with the coronavirus, there aren’t really any reliable rapid tests for the pathogens that cause malaria. ‘And that’s a massive problem for two reasons‘, explains Figueroa Miranda. ‘Firstly, of course, there’s the uncertainty about whether someone is actually infected. But there’s also the fact that the current rapid test doesn’t give any indication of the severity of pathogen infestation.’ Yet this information is crucial in deciding the correct type of treatment, states the researcher.  

It’s particularly tragic in this regard that malaria is relatively easy to treat, especially in the early stages of an infection. The mortality risk increases if it remains undetected, or if the wrong treatment is given. More than 400,000 people die from it every year in Africa and India alone, most of them children. And moreover, Figueroa Miranda adds: malaria is caused by parasites, so-called plasmodia. These occur in various forms. It’s equally crucial to know the exact form with which someone is afflicted, to understand whether therapy would even be effective for the patient. ‘This means that around five to 20 per cent of sick people aren’t being treated properly at present.’ It also results in huge costs; around twelve billion dollars are wasted in this manner in Africa every year, reports Figueroa Miranda. 

Biosensor technology is to provide a remedy

Figueroa Miranda and Rincón Montes want to change that situation. They intend to use biosensors to provide rapid and reliable substantiation of the disease. All that’s required for this is a tiny blood sample from a finger, like when measuring blood sugar levels. 

Unlike in conventional tests that operate by detecting antibodies, in this case specific proteins are detected and can be clearly assigned to a specific parasite genus. This is made possible by so-called aptamers, artificially produced DNA molecules that attach themselves to the proteins and generate a signal. ‘We can also measure the severity of the infestation in each case’, explains Viviana Rincón Montes. ‘The outcome is that we’re not only able to treat patients with the right agent, but also with the right dose.’ Rincón Montes informs us that this already works with remarkable accuracy in the laboratory, all that’s required now is to develop a small hand-held device that can be used anywhere – especially in remote areas. ‘We envisage a device similar to the one used to measure blood sugar levels in diabetics.’ The data could then be transferred to a smartphone app, which would enable more precise epidemiological monitoring and make it easier for patients to monitor their own treatment. 

The device is in principle also suitable for detecting various other infectious diseases. Figueroa Miranda and Rincón Montes have already applied for a patent relating to their biosensor, and they’re planning to launch a spin-off business. Their current focus is on finding financial support for the development of a prototype, said the two on the occasion of being presented with the Innovation Award of the State of NRW in the ‘innovation2business’ category at the end of May 2022. The researchers do certainly still have to substantiate the precise effectiveness of their approach as part of clinical trials, but they’re confident of being able to achieve a genuine breakthrough. The jury for the Innovation Award of the State of NRW would certainly agree with them, they attested that their idea exhibited a ‘very high level of innovation’. 

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