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Malaria Diagnosis in Just Minutes, Instead of Hours

MAY 5, 2004
By Natalie Soh

In an age of multi-million-dollar research grants, a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore has come up with a novel way of counting malaria-infected cells - at a mere cost of $5.

It gets better. The researchers no longer have to peer for hours into a microscope and laboriously click on handheld counters. Now, a computer, with the aid of a camera, can identify and count the infected cells automatically. The new method could help doctors because they will know immediately how sick their patients are.

So far, the system has had an error rate of below 1 per cent, said Assistant Professor Kevin Tan, with the Department of Microbiology at NUS. Its discovery was sparked by the researchers' desire to find a better method to count infected red blood cells, a process necessary for research work on how effective anti-malarial drugs and vaccines are, for instance. A high count of infected cells would also indicate a very sick patient. Not only is manual counting tiring, the risk of human error is greater because it takes an experienced eye to see the infected cells.

In came Associate Professor Ong Sim Heng and PhD student Saravana Kumar with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. They tweaked a program that they had previously devised to count spores in the air, fixed up the system to link the microscope to a camera, and turned the images into digital signals that the computer could process. The system first picks out and identifies each red blood cell, vital for finding out what percentage of the cells are infected. Then, it zooms in on the insides of the cells to see if there are microscopic specks of the parasite.

Said Prof Tan: 'We can go off to lunch and come back and get the results!' The total cost of the project: $5 - without counting brainpower time, of course.

The next step is improving the system for hospitals to diagnose the disease. Hopefully, with more tweaking, the system will be robust enough for the Department of Microbiology's project to develop new malarial vaccines. The Straits Times approached Associate Professor Peter Preiser at the School of Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University for an independent assessment of the project. He said: 'If properly developed, it would give us tremendous advantages in terms of time. If the slides can be processed accurately and quickly, it will help us analyse more experimental samples faster. 'Moreover, you need just an experienced technician to look at the slides now. Instead of trained microscopists being stuck for hours, it will free up the manpower for research.