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Highly sensitive detection of malaria parasites


New assays can detect malaria parasites in human blood at very low levels and might be helpful in the campaign to eradicate malaria, reports a study published this week in PLOS Medicine. An international team led by Ingrid Felger, from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel, Switzerland, took advantage of genes that have multiple copies in the parasite genome to reveal parasites present at concentrations that are 10 times lower than the detection limit of current standard assays.

The researchers compared three methods to detect malaria parasites in 498 samples randomly selected from a malaria survey in Tanzania: light microscopy, the current standard molecular assay, and the new assays. Parasites were detected in 25% of samples by light microscopy, in 50% by the standard assay, and in 58% by the new assays. Compared to the new assays, the current molecular standard assay failed to identify 16% of infections, and at least 40% of those contained parasite gametocytes, the parasite stage that is transmitted when mosquitoes bite an infected person.

The new assays detect only the most common malaria parasite, P. falciparum, and while they can use very small blood samples collected "in the field", the analysis itself needs to be done in a biomedical laboratory. Nonetheless, because low-density infections without disease symptoms are expected to become increasingly common as countries improve malaria control, ultra-sensitive tools such as these will likely be critical for malaria surveillance and for monitoring the progress of malaria control and elimination programs.


Funding: This work was supported by Swiss National Science Foundation [grant number 310030_134889], International Centers of Excellence in Malaria Research [grant number U19 AI089686) and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [grant number OPP1034577]. FM received funding from the Science and Technology Higher Education Project (STHEP) through the Dar-Es-Salaam University College of Education (DULE) and the Stipendienkommission Basel Stadt. IM is supported by an NHMRC Senior Research Fellowship (GNT1043345). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Citation: Hofmann N, Mwingira F, Shekalaghe S, Robinson LJ, Mueller I, Felger I (2015) Ultra-Sensitive Detection of Plasmodium falciparum by Amplification of Multi-Copy Subtelomeric Targets. PLoS Med 12(3): e1001788. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001788

Author Affiliations:
Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Basel, Switzerland
University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
Biological Sciences Department, Dar es Salaam University College of Education, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Ifakara Health Institute, Bagamoyo, Tanzania
Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, Madang and Maprik, Papua New Guinea
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Parkville, Victoria, Australia,
Department of Medical Biology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
Centrede Recerca en Salut Internacional de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain


Ingrid Felger
Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute
+41 61 284 81 17

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