A TEAM of Oxford scientists has taken a critical step towards developing a quick and accurate test for malaria.

Dr Climent Casals-Pascual spent nearly five years in Africa before heading up the team at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Old Road, Headington.

He said: “You have 24 hours to make a diagnosis. By that time, some patients might die, so a diagnostic technique is incredibly important.”

Malaria kills about 655,000 people a year, mainly African children. Current tests involve using a microscope to look for the parasite in a blood sample, but the Oxford team identified a protein ‘marker’ which could be found in a drop of blood.

Dr Casals-Pascual, a native of Barcelona, travelled to Kenya as part of the research for his Oxford doctorate, and returned determined to solve the problem.

With a grant from the Medical Research Council, he worked with researchers in The Gambia to identify the protein associated with severe malaria.

He identified 8,905 protein fragments in blood plasma from patients with mild or severe malaria.

He explained: “Only a tiny fraction of these were from the malaria parasite. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. But after 12 months of intensive work we identified the key parasite proteins.”

He added: “It was hard work but the team felt it was important to break the back of a problem that affects the most vulnerable among us – children who have no access to facilities.

“With these markers, more accurate kits can be developed, so quick correct diagnosis will lead to correct treatment. Inaccurate diagnosis and inappropriate treatment leads to disease-resistant strains and potentially more problems.”

Dr Casals-Pascual added: “I’m a microbiologist but the motivation is there to diagnose these illnesses so that they can be treated. Hopefully we will be able to create something as simple as a pregnancy test.”

Oxford University's technology transfer company, Isis Innovation, hopes to interest a commercial partner in developing a test.

Dr Christine Whyte, of Isis Innovation, said: “Dr Casals-Pascual and his academic team have done tremendous work in identifying the proteins.

“The diagnostics industry now has a great opportunity to develop kits. Isis is keen to facilitate any links that will make the technology available as soon as possible.”