Nanoparticles may be key to making malaria diagnosis more accurate, cheaper

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Nanoparticles may be the key to cheaper and more accurate ways of diagnosing malaria. 

Chun Huh, a UT petroleum engineering research professor, and his team are developing rapid diagnostic test kits that could play a role in distinguishing between a malaria-free person and a contaminated person.

“Currently, the big problem is you can dispense the malaria prevention drugs to people but cannot distribute them indiscriminately,” Huh said. “It’s too expensive and there could be some side effects. But it is vital to detect if the person has malaria parasite in their body or not.”

Huh said the kit he is developing can take saliva samples from a wide range of people and then test who has malaria using a magnetic generator. He said these kits will make administering prevention drugs cheaper and more accurate.

Huh worked with Ijung Kim, a postdoctoral student who focused on using nanoparticles for oil, and Kim’s wife, Yeonjeong Ha, whose doctoral research focused on using nanoparticles to catch biomaterial. Kim previously worked with Huh in using particals for data collection, chemical delivery and water management in
oil production. 

Ha said the idea for this research stemmed from her curiosity about repurposing the particles for medical needs after seeing many different applications in
other industries. 

Nanoparticles have a greater surface area per weight than larger particles and are more reactive, both of which make them a versatile tool. Particles are currently being developed for use in medical applications, manufacturing, oil production
and electronics. 

“Current techniques rely on getting the patient’s blood sample, but it is a problem because most of the people [affected] live in unclean environments,” Huh said.

Instead of drawing blood, the trio will gather samples from a patient’s saliva. Huh, Kim and Ha will utilize three unique functionalities of nanoparticles to create their diagnostic test kit: magnetic pulling, heating and
remotely sensing.

Nanoparticles coated with the malaria antibody are first added to saliva samples. Antibodies are cells that target a specified disease and enable the nanoparticles to identify and attach themselves to the malaria antigen when they encounter them. The team will then incubate these samples, using a technique
called hyperthermia. 

In this process heat is added to the malaria antigen, causing it to grow. The antigen within the saliva can then be detected with a magnet. Finally, a generator is used to create an induction magnetic field that detects the presence of malaria. The researchers then use a magnet to pull the antigens out of the saliva.

If malaria is not detected, the nanoparticles do not attach themselves to anything and are pulled from the saliva sample with the magnet.

“Right now, we are trying to generate the nanoparticles,” Huh said. “Hopefully, in three to six months we can demonstrate the nanoparticle attaching to the
malaria antibody.” 

Huh said the next milestone would be to pull the nanoparticle and malaria antibody together and then burn off the malaria in the sample.

Even though they are still in the beginning stage of their research, Ha and Kim have many ideas about future possibilities. Specifically, the team recognizes the potential of magnetic components of nanoparticles and hopes to apply this technique to different types of diseases.

“We are expecting to develop these magnetic nanoparticles coupled with the diagnostic kit as a platform for detection of others types of diseases, like Zika,” Kim said. “When you have a new type of disease in the future...you might be able to [use] this kit for detecting the new disease.”