Efforts to eradicate certain infectious diseases, such as smallpox and polio, have generally proven fruitful – but one devastating infection remains stubborn in the face of multiple attempts: malaria. Now, researchers believe a simple saliva test that detects the infectious malarial parasite in asymptomatic carriers may provide a new way of looking at disease prevention (1)

Many efforts to tackle malaria have focused on targeting established disease. Rhoel Dinglasan, Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases  at the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute and the College of Veterinary Medicine, and also the senior author of the recent paper in Science Translational Medicine, shares the rationale behind his team’s alternative approach: “Malaria can be looked at like an iceberg – we can treat the people at the tip of the iceberg with evident disease. But there are many people under the waterline that are contributing to the continuation of the disease, regardless of all the control efforts focused on malaria.”

To generate a candidate biomarker list, the researchers performed a cross-sectional, multi-omics study of saliva from 364 children with subclinical infection. Using advanced mass spectrometry-based workflows, the researchers identified 60 proteins that appeared to be secreted into the saliva by the parasite. One in particular – PSSP17 – stood out as a potential biomarker, chiefly because of its relative abundance in all the samples. “We made antibodies to this marker – followed by the development of a simple test in our lab,” says Dinglasan. Perhaps more promisingly, the test worked on both fresh and archived samples. “It allows us to analyze a large number of samples after they’ve been collected,” says Dinglasan, who is hopeful that widespread testing of rural populations in Africa could, therefore, be conducted with relative ease.

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