It’s a medical breakthrough story that begins with a long line.
Brian Grimberg was working at a clinic in Papua New Guinea, watching in frustration as the queue of people hoping to get tested for malaria stretched out the door. It took almost an hour to analyze each person’s blood. Clearly, they wouldn’t get to everyone.
There had to be a better way, he thought.
That led to conversations with Robert Brown, who, like Grimberg, is a researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Brown is a physics professor there, while Grimberg is an assistant professor of international health at Case Western’s School of Medicine, but they ended up collaborating on a research project that resulted in a device that could revolutionize how malaria is detected and treated around the world.
“We tried a lot of ideas,” says Grimberg, “but the last one is both the cheapest and the most effective.”
A few magnets and a laser
What they and their team—including senior researcher Robert Deissler and mechanical designer Richard Bihary—invented is called a Magneto-Optical Detector (MOD), and it combines magnets and laser light to determine, in less than a minute, if a drop of blood contains malaria parasites.
Grimberg knew that infected blood is more magnetic than healthy blood. As the parasites consume red blood cells, they leave behind a byproduct called hemozoin that contains iron particles. Could that, he wondered, be the key to helping scientists quickly and more accurately identify blood with malaria?
So he started working with Brown, whose department has been researching magnetic fields for many years. That was back in 2009, and, as with much scientific research, they tested a number of approaches that didn’t pan out. Then, they discovered the missing component: laser light.
Because of the iron in the parasites’ waste, the researchers could use magnets to manipulate the tiny crystals and rotate them. And when they were aligned a certain way, the blood absorbed a laser’s light, whereas the beam easily passed through a sample from a healthy person.
The team continued to refine their invention and now have an instrument that’s not only much faster in detecting malaria than existing methods, but it’s also portable and very cheap—two crucial qualities when you’re working in remote villages. Each test costs only about a dollar, which is roughly 50 percent less than those relying on a microscope. The MOD itself, not much bigger than a shoebox, costs about $500 to make.
“A long time ago, we came to the conclusion that if we create a device that could detect everything, but cost $100,000, it was basically useless,” Grimberg notes. “If you can’t move it around and go out and help people, nobody’s going to buy it. We wanted it to be great, but it also had to be realistic.”
Still a killer
While malaria is no longer a major public health threat in most developed countries, it remains a devastating disease in as many as 100 countries, with half the world’s population at risk. According to the World Health Organization, it’s responsible for more than 400,000 deaths a year, including many young children.
Grimberg believes a big reason the disease remains so persistent is that the focus has been on eradicating mosquitoes that spread it, rather than on humans who have become infected. The pests aren’t born with the parasite. They simply transmit it from human carriers—many who don’t even know they’re sick—to other people.
He points out that it has always been much easier to go after the mosquitoes by spraying pesticides over fields and swamps or inside houses, rather than identifying and treating all the human carriers. But the insects have largely adapted and now tend to stay outside sprayed houses, he says. To Grimberg, a more effective approach would be to test whole communities.
“With the device we’ve developed we can, for the first time, go into villages and screen everybody and be able to tell people, ‘You have a little bit of malaria and we want to get you treated," Grimberg says. “We’d be eliminating that reservoir of the disease, so you can have as many mosquitoes as you want and they wouldn’t be able to transmit malaria.”
The MOD is already being tested in the field in Kenya and Peru, and beginning next month, it will be used to screen three entire villages in Kenya. All malaria carriers will be identified and treated, and the results will then be compared to similar villages where the device isn’t used.
It’s hard to say when the device could be widely used to fight malaria. A big step was taken last spring when Hemex Health, an Oregon firm focused on global health issues, purchased the license for the technology. But there’s still much testing to be done, and Grimberg knows he will have to do a lot of demos in field clinics to convince health officials of its efficacy.
“There’s always some resistance to a new approach,” he acknowledges. “But the speed of our device is really the key. If you want to eliminate malaria, you need to be able to find that last infected person. And that’s hard to do right now.”
Their work on the MOD, however, has already earned notable public recognition. This fall, they received a Patents for Humanity Award from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and in November were honored at a ceremony in the White House. The team has applied for a patent for the device.
But the two lead researchers take as much satisfaction in how well their long collaboration has worked. Grimberg points out that Brown’s knowledge and background with magnetic fields allowed them to explore a number of different ideas before they had one concrete enough to apply for a grant. And Brown says the MOD project has led to research into new applications of magnetic crystals in other diseases.
“It’s been a wonderful story about basic research in a university and its ability to apply it to a lot of things,” he says. “What’s great is that we sit here working on basic things and from time to time, they can be applied to solving big problems in society. That’s a wonderful thing for us.”