Researchers at the CSIRO, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Australian National University looked at the breath of volunteers, who had been given a controlled malaria infection as part of existing studies to develop new treatments. The research found that the levels of some normally almost undetectable chemicals increased markedly in the breath of the volunteers during the malaria infection.
Research group leader, Dr Stephen Trowell, said that it was exciting that the increase in the chemicals were present at very early stages of infection, when many other methods would have been unable to detect the parasite in the body of people infected with malaria. In addition to its potentially better sensitivity, human breath offers an attractive alternative to blood tests for diagnosing malaria.
The name malaria originally came from the Italian words for "bad air" because it was thought that the disease was caught from the foul smelling air around swamps and marshes. In an interesting twist, researchers have now detected foul-smelling compounds - albeit at levels far too low for humans to smell - in the breath of people with malaria.
Up to now, these chemicals have only been detected using very expensive, laboratory based instruments, and only in the breath of volunteers experiencing a controlled malaria infection in the clinic.
Dr Trowell added that they were collaborating with researchers in regions where malaria was endemic, to test whether the same chemicals can be found in the breath of patients. Also, they were working to develop very specific, sensitive and cheap "biosensors" that could be used in the clinic and the field to test breath for malaria.The study is published today in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.