Magnets Might Manhandle Malaria

Magnets Might Make Muddle of Malaria

As many as 2.7 million people die from malaria every year—including approximately 1 million children¯yet the tropical parasite is evolving into new, drug-resistant strains. Now the power of magnets may defeat a disease that affects half a billion people a year, according to UW Bioengineering Professor Henry Lai.

Malaria is spread by female Anopheles mosquitoes. The organism first invades the liver, then re-emerges into the bloodstream and attacks red blood cells. This is what causes malaria's hallmark symptoms: fever, uncontrolled shivering, aches in the joints and headaches. Infected blood cells can block blood vessels to the brain, causing seizures and death.

But the attack on red blood cells could be malaria's undoing. The parasite builds up iron molecules as it infects the blood. A weak alternating, or oscillating, magnetic field can break up the iron, leading to membrane damage in the parasite. In one experiment, Lai found 33 to 70 percent fewer parasites in exposed samples than in a control group.

If the method is proven effective and safe, Lai says rooms could be equipped with magnetic coils to produce the oscillating field. "People could come to the room and sit and read or whatever while they're being treated," he says. "Or you could set it up in the back of a big transport truck, then drive from village to village to treat people."

Drug-resistant strains should be just as vulnerable, he adds, and it is unlikely the parasite could develop any resistance to magnetic fields. Collaborating researchers include Pathobiology Professor Jean E. Feagin, a senior scientist at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, and Ceon Ramon, a UW electrical engineering research scientist.

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