Ph.D. Student’s Magnetic Device A Possible New Treatment For Malaria

Jul 12, 2016

Ph.D. student Blue Martin holds a device that she hopes will help treat malaria.
Credit College of Engineering / Carnegie Mellon University

It’s no bigger than a smartphone, but it could have a big impact on one of the world’s most deadly parasites.

Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Blue Martin is developing a device that she said will sort malaria-infected red blood cells from healthy red blood cells.

“Malaria, when it infects a red blood cell, eats the hemoglobin and spits out an iron crystal, which makes the cell magnetic, before the malaria splits it open and moves on,” Martin said.

Martin’s device exploits those iron-laden cells. The device consists of a magnet about the size of a cell phone, a layer of fine wires and a layer of channels about the thickness of a piece of paper and as wide as a human hair. The patient’s blood would flow from an artery or vein, through the device and back into their body.

“I’ve been able to remove 20 percent of those bad magnetic cells in one pass,” Martin said. “I could repeat that until the concentration went down, but I’ve only done it for one pass so far.”

The hope, she said, is that by reducing the concentration of malaria in the patient’s system, it would be easier to treat the condition with drugs or the person’s own immune system. 

Rachel Weller and her husband Michael are missionaries in Gambella Ethiopia. She has never contracted malaria but her husband has. She said in many parts of Africa malaria is just part of everyday life.

“Everybody has the real potential to be sick every day,” said Weller. “You just start feeling bad and you can be sick. So, it affects the workforce. For children and older people, it’s serious health risks.”

According to the World Health Organization, malaria killed about 438,000 people worldwide in 2015. 

The device being developed by Martin uses the patient’s own blood pressure to move the blood through micro channels, so there’s no need for a pump. And the magnets are permanent magnets, so there is no need for electricity. That simplicity could be key to its adoption in less developed regions.

Trying to attract the iron in the malaria-infected red blood cells is not a novel idea. However, Martin said she’s been able to separate the red blood cells earlier in the life cycle than some other researchers. That could be important because as the disease progress, the red blood cells become “sticky,” which is when they can lodge in the brain. 

“Probably the worst kind of malaria is cerebral malaria and by the time they figure it out … it’s often too late,” Weller said.

In an effort to refine the device, Martin is experimenting with different wire shapes, magnet patterns, flow rates and cell concentrations.

Because it’s difficult to work with malaria-infected blood in the lab, the blood Martin uses is healthy blood treated to act like malaria-infected blood. She said she hopes to someday take her device to Africa to test it on patients in the field.

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