Gates Foundation Grant Jump-Starts Innovative Malaria Research at UT Austin

AUSTIN, Texas — Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, a program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to pursue research aimed at improving diagnostic tests for malaria. Technology used in oil and gas exploration inspired the health-related research.
 
About 3.2 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population, are at risk of malaria, a treatable infection transmitted by animals and insects. In 2015, 95 countries and territories had ongoing malaria transmission, according to the World Health Organization. Chun Huh, a research professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, and his research team plan to use the Gates Foundation funding to improve the sensitivity and accuracy of existing malaria diagnostic tools through the use of tiny particles with special properties, called nanoparticles. (photo of Dr. Chun Hun, Cockrell School of Engineering)



The Grand Challenges Explorations program funds individuals worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mold in how humanity solves persistent global health and development challenges. The UT Austin project is one of more than 40 Grand Challenges Explorations grants announced today by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

“We are grateful to the Gates Foundation for their commitment and for believing in our vision — to develop a better diagnostic tool utilizing the seemingly unrelated nanoparticle techniques that we developed for the petroleum production applications,” Huh said. “We believe improved malaria diagnostic kits could make a significant impact, particularly in developing nations with limited medical and financial resources.”

To receive funding, Huh and other Grand Challenges Explorations winners were required to present a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas. Huh and his team are focused on how nanoparticles could help lower the cost and improve the accuracy of malaria diagnostic testing. 

Huh’s team includes postdoctoral fellow Ijung Kim and Yeonjeong Ha, a Cockrell School civil engineering alumna (2014) whose doctoral research focused on interactions between biological cells and nanoparticles. Cockrell School chemical engineering professor Jennifer Maynard is a key participant, with her expertise in antibodies and infectious disease.

Kim and Ha, a husband and wife team, said the idea for the project stemmed from Huh and Kim’s work in oil production, using nanoparticles for data collection, chemical delivery and water management. Kim and Ha were motivated to apply this technology to malaria diagnostic testing because of the nanoparticles’ ability to be magnetically retrieved and re-used after they have completed their function. Nanoparticles are employed in fields as diverse as biomedical engineering and environmental engineering.

Today, malaria diagnostic tools, including microscopy and rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), largely rely on blood samples, which are invasive and expensive to obtain. Although there are some saliva-based diagnostic tests for malaria on the market, they are not yet as accurate as blood tests.

The UT Austin engineers believe that the versatility of magnetic nanoparticles could be the key to improving noninvasive malaria RDT kits. Magnetic nanoparticles can be coated with specific antibodies, magnetically heated, magnetically collected and magnetically detected. The team’s concept will be developed and tested this year, but the original idea is to coat the magnetic nanoparticles with an antibody that will attach to the malaria antigen. After nanoparticles are added to a saliva sample, heat will be used to incubate or grow malaria that may be present in a sample. Once the malaria has been detected, heat can be generated by the nanoparticles to kill any malaria parasites in the sample.

The researchers hope this will lead to the development of a sustainable diagnostic kit with magnetic nanoparticles that can be re-used in the future.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a $100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Since it was launched in 2008, over 1,186 projects in more than 61 countries have received Grand Challenges Explorations grants. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times per year, and successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to $1 million.