Microwaves being tested to combat malaria

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Malaria is one of the most dangerous diseases worldwide, and with its spread, most commonly known as being transmitted from mosquito bites, comes newer ideas about how to combat the deadly disease. Roughly 3.3 billion people are at risk of catching and possibly dying from malaria, and every year sees up to 250 million new cases and almost one million deaths.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has recently funded the development of a process that uses low-grade microwaves to kill off malaria parasites in the blood. The Grand Challenges Explorations is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is funding the microwave testing. Grand Challenges Explorations generally funds studies that are considered too bold to attract other funding sources.

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Because people are developing resistance to malaria drugs, new methods are needed to combat the deadly disease, which affects mainly children under 5 years of age. While the Gates Foundation currently funds traditional methods of preventing the disease – mosquito netting and insecticides – the foundation leaders wanted to step forward to help with a more forward-thinking scientific approach to battling malaria.

Dinesh Agrawal, a professor from Penn State who is helping lead the development of the new process, said, “The first phase successfully demonstrated that the way microwaves heat the malaria parasite causes it to die without harming normal blood cells. Microwave interactions are unique. The parasite has extra iron ( Fe3+) that enhances the microwave energy absorption by the parasite. As a result, it is postulated that the parasite gets heated preferentially and is killed without affecting the normal blood cells.”

The team applied for the funding through the Gates Foundation two years ago and received the second phase of that funding, amounting to roughly $1 million, in July. While the first phase tested the microwaves in a lab setting, the second phase will test the process in mouse models. If all goes according to plan and the testing is successful, the third phase of the testing will move on to human beings.

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