A low, flat, white building in rural Buckinghamshire would seem an unlikely spot to develop an early warning test for deadly malaria.
The building is home to Medical Detection Dogs, a charity set up in 2008 to harness the animals’ extraordinary sense of smell to detect disease in humans.
Dogs trained by the charity have already proved their worth as medical alert assistance dogs, helping their owners manage conditions such as type 1 diabetes by detecting odour changes linked to low or high blood sugar levels and then alerting them.
The charity also works with the NHS on trials testing the dogs’ ability to ‘sniff out’ cancer from urine samples.
And now the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made a £70,000 grant for a joint collaboration with the dogs for the early detection of malaria.
In conjunction with Durham University, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the Medical Research Council in Gambia, the charity will be testing if the dogs can be trained to detect malaria early.
Last year, there were 214 million malaria cases and an estimated 438,000 deaths – 90 per cent of those in Africa, with pregnant women and children under five the most vulnerable.
Diagnosis involves finger-prick blood tests that are then screened in a laboratory.
‘Using dogs has the advantage that it is non-invasive, portable and does not require a laboratory – it’s fully functional in field settings and can be used to test a high quantity of samples,’ says Professor Steve Lindsay, an expert in the development of malaria control measures at Durham’s School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
The idea is to train the dogs to distinguish malaria in samples.
If this proves successful, the technique could be used to screen travellers entering areas that are malaria free, says Professor Lindsay.
Long term, the hope is to train dogs in Africa to detect malaria.
‘We have real trouble finding out who is carrying the malaria parasite in communities where the disease is present at a low level,’ he says.
‘By using the dogs, we could quickly find and treat those with malaria and hugely accelerate the speed at which we can wipe out this terrible disease altogether.’
To train the dogs, the London School of Hygiene will collect sweat samples from 400 Gambian children.
Of the samples, 15 per cent will be collected from children known to be have the malaria parasite, so that the dogs can be trained to distinguish positive from negative samples.
If the first phase of the trial is successful, the project will be in line for a further £700,000 grant.
Source: Daily Mail