Like the fictional Star Trek "tricorder" that could instantly diagnose any illness, a new laser-based instrument can detect the presence of malaria in seconds without breaking the skin, its developers say.

The noninvasive technology can accurately detect low levels of malaria infection through a person's skin, with no need to draw any blood or use dyes or diagnostic chemicals, researchers at Rice University in Houston say.

A low-powered laser creates tiny vapor "nanobubbles" inside cells infected by malaria by interacting with hemozoin, a waste product produced by the malarial parasite.

These nanobubbles present a unique acoustic signature when they start to pop, allowing for an extremely sensitive diagnosis, the researchers explain.

"Ours is the first through-the-skin method that's been shown to rapidly and accurately detect malaria in seconds without the use of blood sampling or reagents," says lead investigator Dmitri Lapotko, inventor of the vapor nanobubble technology.

The technology could be incorporated in an inexpensive, battery-powered device that would be portable and easily used by nonmedical personnel, Lapoto says, with one $15,000 device capable of screening as many as 200,000 people in a year at a cost for each diagnosis of just pennies.

While quick tests for malaria yielding results in just 15 to 20 minutes exist, they require personnel trained in the taking of a blood sample and the use of chemical reagents, the Rice researchers point out.

The annual cost for the diagnostic chemicals worldwide is around $100 million, according to the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, a nonprofit group created by the World Health Organization.

"The pursuit of technologies that avoid these pitfalls, especially when as innovative as this one, is welcome," says Mark Perkins of the foundation.

One of the globe's deadliest diseases, malaria infects more than 300 million people every year and kills more than 600,000.

The malaria parasites, entering humans through the bite of infected mosquitos, have become more resistant to drugs, and despite global programs, efficient screening and early diagnosis are largely unavailable in the countries most affected by malaria, the researchers say.

For that reason, they say, they are preparing for field trials in Africa, one of the world's hardest-hit regions.

Experts say they have high hopes for the trials.

"The possibility of diagnosing a malaria infection with the device, without any blood-taking and with results available in seconds, will provide a fantastic new tool for the control and eventual elimination of malaria," says Umberto D'Alessandro of the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council Unit in Gambia.

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