Could breath tests be a new way to diagnose malaria?

Individuals with malaria exhale a distinctive ‘breathprint’ and this could be used for simple diagnosis, according to research presented at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Annual Meeting (5–9 November, Baltimore, MD, USA).

Simple tools for diagnosing malaria are necessary not only to direct treatment but also as part of global surveillance efforts. Although some rapid diagnostic tests are currently available, they do have limitations, for example, producing positive results even after infection has subsided.This study is the first to uncover distinctive compounds in human breath that can serve as diagnostic markers for malaria.

The team enrolled 35 children aged 3–15 who had sought care at a pediatric center in Lilongwe, Malawi, presenting with symptoms of malaria. The children had already been tested for the disease using current gold-standard methods, and breath samples were then taken and analyzed to determine if infection could be detected via this novel method.

Chad Schaber (Washington University in St. Louis, MO, USA), who presented the results, commented:  “We were able to determine whether the children were infected or not based on the composition of six different compounds that were detectable in a sample of their breath. We took breath samples from 35 children and we correctly determined the malaria status –whether they had malaria or not – for 29 of them, which is an 83% success rate.”

The researchers also reported that the breath of children with malaria contained two compounds known as terpenes, which are known to be associated with odor production in plants, and one of the compounds has been reported to attract mosquitoes to plants. These findings suggest the exhaled compounds caused by infection may potentially be accelerating the spread of disease.

Author of the study, Audrey Odom John (Washington University), explained: “The terpene is probably a survival mechanism for the parasite, but this compound also might be useful in boosting the effectiveness of mosquito traps used in malaria control efforts.”

Although the 83% success rate demonstrated here is lower than some other tests, this diagnostic may be simpler to carry out in resource-limited, rural settings. In addition, the team hope to improve this rate with further refinements and are currently working with engineers who have developed compact electronic noses for other purposes, but whose technology may be transferable.

President of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Patricia Walker, concluded: “The malaria parasite has been outwitting human interventions for thousands of years, which is why we need these innovative collaborations between biologists and engineers to develop new tools that can give us the upper hand. It sounds almost like something from science-fiction, but the ability to detect disease with a breath test may be closer than we ever could have imagined or hoped for.”

Want to find out more?




  1. Great achievement, hope it could be accessible, affordable by countries like Zambia soonest. So it can only be detected when someone has signs and symptoms of malaria not before that?

  2. Ahmed Mohamed Ibrahim on

    Very interesting work. I believe nanotechnology has high capability to play an important role in such a field and others if well collaboration were conducted between different scientific sectors. I hope to see success of such works. We need to widen our imaginary knowledge and think out of the box.

  3. Interesting as it could save millions of population due shortage of resources in LDC’ s especially Sub Saharan Africa

Leave A Comment