Spearmint or winterfresh? A UCLA Engineering graduate student is working to develop a diagnostic tool for malaria, one of the world’s most widespread infectious diseases, which will require only a few minutes chewing on specialized gum.

Biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Andrew Fung, his advisor professor Jack W. Judy and Dr. Theodore Moore of UCLA, received a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop the potential tool. The grant was one of 76 awarded, out of more than 3,000 applications, in round 3 of the foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, which aims to improve health in developing nations.

Malaria is an infectious disease caused by the parasite Plasmodium, which are carried and transmitted by mosquitoes. The disease is particularly common in tropical regions and especially affects poor populations with limited resources to fight the disease.     According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, between 350 to 500 million cases of malaria occur throughout the world each year. More than one million people die, and most of them are young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Current rapid diagnostic tests for malaria require blood or plasma, however this limits repeated testing in children, as well as some communities that have taboos on blood being drawn.

If someone is infected, their saliva could also contain protein biomarkers expressed from the parasite, although in lower density than in blood.

Andrew Fung, a Ph.D. student in the UCLA Biomedical Engineering Interdepartmental Program, proposed a rapid diagnostic test for malaria biomarkers in the saliva of infected individuals. The idea, called MALiVA, is for chewing gum to contain small colored and magnetized particles coated in antibodies that bind to proteins expressed from the malaria parasite.

If we’re using saliva as the diagnostic medium, I thought “Why not build the test with a form factor that’s native to the mouth, like a stick of chewing gum?” The flavors in the gum get you salivating, so you’re in fact supplying specimen for the test.  The sucking action in your mouth delivers saliva to the antibody test, which indicates whether malaria proteins are found in the saliva. Since it tests for malaria using saliva, we called it “MALiVA”.  Just imagine – a malaria diagnostic that tastes like peach-mango.

After a few minutes of chewing, the gum is removed from the mouth and passed over a small magnet. If malaria biomarkers are present, the magnet will concentrate the particles to form a visible line, much like a pregnancy test strip. The particular strain of malaria can also be indicated, depending on the color of the line.

The key to this proposed in-the-field diagnostic tool is its simplicity – no electricity is needed. Also, results can be shown right away and does not need to be sent to a lab for analysis.

“We hope that our efforts will produce a test that requires no electricity or special training, and minimal healthcare infrastructure,” Fung said. ”Those traits are important for global health conditions. A number of the experimental technologies on our laboratories might benefit populations in low-resource regions, and I think it’s a great time to direct research efforts toward these applications.  The resulting space for creative health technologies is a perfect challenge for the vision and creativity of UCLA researchers.”

“This project is very exciting because it is a great example of applying state-of-the-art engineering technologies to address a problem of great health and social value, in an economically scalable and appropriate manner,” said Judy, professor  in the Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering departments at UCLA. “Advanced research on biological micro-electro-mechanical systems (BioMEMS) that involve microfluidics and magnetism are long-standing areas of active research in my lab at UCLA,”

“Andrew’s novel combination of these core technologies in a batch-microfabricated fashion also has the promise of enabling mass production of these sensors at low cost,” Judy added.

“A rapid diagnostic test will allow additional information that will significantly reduce the number of people we under or over treat,” said Moore, who is the clinical Director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and Director of the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at UCLA. “Also, it will mean communities can use the diagnostic with an indigenous health care worker to diagnose and treat so that they are not dependant on a visiting physician to make the diagnosis.  The fact that this will be done on sputum, means we do not need to draw blood for the diagnosis, which is taboo in some societies, painful in all people and cumbersome because of the equipment needed to analyze in blood. This is particularly true with children, which is the main population we want to help with this.”

“The timeliness is important as well,” Moore added. “ The sooner malaria is treated the less the impact it has on the body.  Chronic anemia in children can affect their cognitive development.  Malaria can cause acute injury such as cerebral malaria and blackwater fever and other irreversibly damaging manifestations which may be prevented or lessened by early diagnosis and intervention.”

The team is also working with Dr. Michel Bergeron, founder of the Infectious Diseases Research Centre at Laval University in Québec City, who has produced several successful rapid diagnostic tools.