Research Roundup: Diagnostics for malaria, premature birth, and women’s health
Researchers at the Durham University in the United Kingdom have received a US$100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to test the feasibility of training dogs to detect malaria. Dogs have been trained to use their keen sense of smell to detect other diseases, including certain cancers, and studies suggest that malaria infection causes a distinct odor, and that unique chemicals can be found on the breath of patients. The team plans to recruit 400 children in the Gambia, including many who are currently infected with malaria. The children will wear nylon socks for 24 hours, which will then be used to train the dogs to identify malaria based on odors in the sweat and skin. If successful, this approach to malaria testing would be quick and cheap, and would not require any equipment or a laboratory setting.
A new, commercially-available diagnostic can predict premature births, a critical tool as half of all preterm births occur in women without known risk factors. Between 2011 and 2013, the Utah-based Sera Prognostics enrolled more than 5,500 pregnant women at 11 sites across the United States, and confirmed that the quantity of two proteins in the blood can indicate risk for preterm birth. The test can be administered at 19 or 20 weeks into the pregnancy; pregnancy normally lasts 40 weeks and delivery before 37 weeks is considered preterm. The test—PreTRM®—tells a woman her percentage risk, and currently costs $945, however, Sera Prognostics is working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop tools more suitable for low-income countries.
Startup NextGen Jane is developing a “smart tampon” that would collect menstrual blood each month and test for a range of diseases and conditions, including sexually transmitted infections, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, uterine fibroids, cervical cancer, and more. Many of these conditions are asymptomatic, and consequently go undetected until significant damage has been done. The team at NextGen Jane has a working prototype—a device that siphons menstrual blood from tampons—and is conducting clinical trials for several of the diagnostics themselves, which identify biomarkers for different conditions in menstrual blood. The tool will connect to a database, allowing women to analyze the data and track their reproductive health over time. The team anticipates having a complete product—combined diagnostics and the delivery mechanism—within the next year, which will be commercially available within three to four years.