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James Logan On Sniffing Out Malaria

The world’s best scent detectors could one day be used to help diagnose deadly diseases.

While most of us are squeamish about discussing infections, body odor, parasites, and insects, there are those who enthusiastically embrace these to bring about solutions for one of mankind’s greatest banes: disease. In years past, great strides have been taken to battle deadly diseases, but there’s a long way to go in finding ways to control and eradicate them.

For instance, malaria is a leading cause of death and half the world’s population remains at risk. Developing an effective treatment has been elusive as people who are infectious with the disease are needed for further study. A person who has survived a malaria infection can pass it on even though they show no symptoms. Finding these people has been the biggest challenge … until now.

I Like Bugs

Professor James Logan, biologist and medical entomologist, is the UK’s leading expert on insect repellents and methods of personal protection against arthropod vectors. Fascinated with bugs since he was a child, he now heads the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Working as LSHTM’s principal investigator of a world-renowned research program, Logan has been at the forefront of groundbreaking research that can potentially control deadly pathogens. His team explores the complex interaction of arthropod vectors. Arthropod vectors include mosquitoes, sand flies, lice, fleas, ticks, and mites that transmit infectious pathogens such as parasites or microbes.

The program’s research has led to new and improved methods for controlling vectors that transmit pathogens of diseases such as malaria, Zika, dengue, trachoma, and Lyme disease. As part of the research, field evaluations on experimental vector control tools are performed in developing countries.
Recently, Logan’s research has led to a new discovery that malaria infection causes changes in body odor which mosquitoes find very alluring. The moment a body turns infectious is when mosquitoes begin to be attracted. This seems to be how a parasite continues its life cycle by changing its host’s smell to attract mosquitoes that will go on to infect another person. A change in body odor associated with a disease is not unusual. Relied on for centuries, body odors helped to identify certain diseases.

Disease Detective

Now, Logan’s work leads him into developing a new, non-invasive diagnostic test for malaria and other diseases. If chemical compounds producing the smell of our bodies during illness could be detected, it could be used for diagnosing illnesses. “We’d need to develop sensors that would allow us to do this, but it turns out nature has already provided the world’s best sensors: animals,” he says.

In their research, they’ve captured the chemical signature of the smell of malaria. Called aldehydes, it’s the magic elixir mosquitos find so irresistible. How they discovered it is truly amazing. They actually attached microelectrodes to cells in mosquito antennae, introduced the odor, then saw and heard the cells react to it. This took them to the next level in their research. Could dogs be trained to sniff out malaria?

We all know that dogs have a keen sense of smell that’s much more sensitive than our own. It’s been reported that dogs can detect one drop of scent in the equivalent of 20 Olympic size swimming pools. Through a grant received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Logan’s team collaborated with Medical Detection Dogs, a charity that trains dogs to detect human disease by odor to help prevent medical emergencies.

Sure enough, the dogs were successfully trained to detect malaria with stunning results that surpassed the criteria for a diagnostic set by the World Health Organization. Logan imagines these dogs could one day be used at ports of entry to detect people with malaria.

But beyond man’s best friend, technologies are being explored and developed to allow an individual to self-diagnose though use of a patch or by smartphone. The data collected could be massive. “This could completely revolutionize the way that we track the spread of diseases, the way that we target our control efforts and respond to disease outbreaks, ultimately helping to lead to the eradication of malaria, and even beyond malaria, for other diseases that we already know have a smell,” he says in his TEDxLondon talk. “If we can harness the power of nature to find out what those smells are, we could do this and make this a reality.”

Going in Deep

Logan advises the UK government and other international organizations on aspects of biology, entomology, parasites, and disease control. He earned a first-class BSc Honours degree in Zoology from the University of Aberdeen and won the Alfred Russell Wallace Award for his PhD. Logan is a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society with over 18 years of medical and veterinary entomology experience.

Additionally, Logan formed two companies and is the director and founder of Arthropod Control Product Test Centre (ARCTEC) and Vecotech Ltd. He is a Science Ambassador for the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET) inspiring youth to grow an interest in science. He has worked on various programs for BBC and Channel 4 as a television presenter. Sought after for his scientific expertise, he is and avid speaker at events and is often featured in various television, radio, print, and digital media.

Logan enjoys travel and volunteers around the world participating in worthy projects such as protecting and monitoring primates, turtles, and endangered marsupials. Not adverse to becoming a subject of study, he once infested himself with hookworms as an experiment for the television show Embarrassing Bodies. His line of work exposes him to many a mosquito bite. But most concerning was when he lived in fear of contracting the deadly disease, African sleeping sickness, transmitted by the bite of a tsetse fly. “I had the all early signs and I tested positive for it. So it was hanging over me. It was a difficult time,” he says to the Daily Record. But after the three-year mark, he either didn’t have the disease or he was not susceptible to it.

Logan and his team continue to make new discoveries and methods to control diseases. His malaria sniffing dogs are just the first step in helping to save mankind from dreaded diseases. Indeed, in this case, dog truly is man’s best friend. Learn more about Logan and his research at the LSHTM and ARCTEC websites.