New malaria test measures changes in red blood cells

A researcher at the University of British Columbia has developed an accurate and simple device to study malaria to help researchers measure the changes in red blood cells caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite.

Hongshen Ma, an assistant professor in UBC's departments of urologic sciences and mechanical engineering, and his team developed a lab-on-a-chip device to help those conducting clinical trials or laboratory research related to malaria.

"Our results show that it's possible to precisely measure the stiffening of red blood cells caused by the parasite at various stages of infection," Ma said.

Normal red blood cells in humans have to squeeze through capillaries many times smaller than their own diameter to deliver oxygen to all tissues in the body. Red blood cells that have been infected with malaria gradually lose that ability, disrupting blood flow and causing vital organ failure and death.

Ma's microfluidic device deforms single red blood cells and measures the pressure required to push the cell through a series of funnel-shaped constrictions. The device then calculates the cell's deformability. By measuring this aspect of the infected red blood cell, researchers can attain important information about the disease's status and its response to treatment.

"Current methods to measure red cell deformability are either too complex to be used in clinical settings or are not sensitive enough," Ma said.

A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided the funding for the research.