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CMU student developing magnetic malaria treatment

“I knew I wanted to work on something that would help people.”

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As a woman in a STEM field, Carnegie Mellon University student Blue Martin says she thinks one of the best ways to foster interest in the sciences is by encouraging hobbies that allow opportunities to build and create things. 

“Our souls are only satisfied by what we make with our own hands, whether that’s knitting or building a robot,” Martin says. “And collaborating with others is [an] important part of any learning process.” 

Now, a smartphone-sized device she’s creating could one day help treat one of the world’s most insidious diseases by using magnets. 

Martin, a CMU doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, was working as an undergraduate in the mechanical-engineering machine shop when she decided she wanted to focus on medical devices. She originally hoped to work on artificial-heart research, but there was a project already underway on a device that would help treat malaria. Martin was intrigued. 

“I knew I wanted to work on something that would help people,” she says. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, last year there were 214 million cases of malaria around the world. The disease killed 438,000 people in 2015, most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa.  

There are numerous challenges with treating malaria. For one, the version of the disease that affects humans most severely doesn’t affect animals, making testing treatments difficult. 

Additionally, many malaria patients, especially those in impoverished areas, suffer through and recover from the disease several times, and may only seek treatment when their symptoms become life-threatening. They often end up developing a resistance to the drugs most commonly used to treat malaria, and can become anemic and develop other serious conditions, such as organ failure.

Martin’s still-theoretical device would filter out inflected blood cells from malaria patients using magnets. 

It’s called mPharesis, and the name is a mashup of the words “magnetic apheresis.” No, of course you don’t know what that is, you’re not a biomed Ph.D. candidate at CMU. Apheresis is a procedure that treats disease by removing blood from the body and separating it into plasma and cells, which allows antibodies from autoimmune diseases to be removed. 

Researchers have long known that malaria patients’ red blood cells are magnetic, because the parasite that causes malaria crystallizes the iron, or hemoglobin, in their cells. The mPharesis device would use magnets to draw out the iron, essentially skimming the infected cells away. The patient’s healthy, filtered blood would then be returned.

Once fully developed, the hope is that the mPharesis device could replace dialysis as a treatment option for malaria patients.

Martin explains that one of the many challenges she faced was finding the right size and strength of magnets to use. The first design had one large magnet, but she discovered that smaller, strategically placed magnets were more effective. 

As it’s designed now, the mPharesis device passes a paper-thin layer of blood over magnets and wires, and would take more than one pass to fully purge the parasite from the patient’s cells. She says the device is able to remove about 20 percent of the infected cells on the first pass, even in a patient who is gravely ill. 

Ideally, mPharesis will be able to be used without electricity, Martin says, but it’s still a long way from even being close to patient testing. 

That lengthy process from concept to production of an actual, functioning medical device can be wearying for the engineers and scientists involved, Martin says. She says it’s easy to get too focused on the science of the process, and to lose sight of the ultimate goal of treating patients and curing disease, especially for someone without a medical background, like herself. As part of her further study, she plans to educate herself about the people mPharesis would help.


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