Around the world almost a million people die from malaria each year, and half the planet's population, 3.3 billion people, live at risk of contracting the disease, mostly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Treatments for malaria, however, have never been a high priority for pharmaceutical companies. Most victims have little or no ability to pay, and profit margins on vaccines are thin. Now, our few lines of defense are starting to falter: multi-drug resistant malaria is becoming prevalent in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, while even the most effective drug combinations are losing their punch.
Researchers have now hit upon one treatment that no parasite has ever developed an immunity against, and may never be able to survive: microwaves.
Carmenza Spadafora, a researcher at one of Panama’s top research institutes, and Jose Stoute of Pennsylvania State University, developed a technique that may lead to full-body microwave scanners to cure malaria. The approach destroys malaria parasites by emitting low-powered microwaves that heat iron-rich, toxic crystals—remnants of digested blood cells in the parasite—fatally releasing its contents, according to Nature. Since the parasite carries an extra iron atom, it selectively absorbs microwave energy which kills the parasite but leaves normal blood cells unharmed. If successful, a human-sized device (think the scanners at airports) may soon provide an instant cure for the disease
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is sponsoring a second round of research into the approach, although it's anything but a sure bet. It's part of a special $100 million grant program "designed to tap the innovators of the world by providing resources needed to explore bold ideas that are typically too risky to attract funding through other mechanisms.” Other innovative ideas are coming from the other end of the equation: zapping mosquitoes with lasers, altering their stomach bacteria, or genetically engineering them so they won't mate.
With millions more infected each year, perhaps some microwaves are just what the doctor ordered.
[Image: Flickr user chez_sugi]