Spread by mosquitoes, malaria is caused by a tiny parasite that infects human red blood cells. University of British Columbia researcher Hongshen Ma and his team designed a lab-on-a-chip device to better understand the changes in red blood cells caused by Plasmodium falciparum, the most common species of malaria parasites.

Measuring 50 cm x 25 cm, Ma’s microfluidic device deforms single red blood cells through a series of funnel-shaped constrictions. The pressure required to push the cell through each constriction is measured and then used to calculate the cell’s deformability. By measuring the deformability of an infected red blood cell, researchers can obtain vital information about the status of the disease and response to treatment.

Normal human red blood cells must squeeze through capillaries many times smaller than their own diameter in order to deliver oxygen to all tissues in the body. Red blood cells infected with malaria gradually lose this capability, which disrupts blood flow, causing failure of vital organs and eventually death.

Ma notes that although there has been considerable research on the biomechanics of malaria, “current methods to measure red cell deformability are either too complex to be used in clinical settings or are not sensitive enough.”