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Audrey Odom John at TEDx

Physician-scientist developing malaria breath test

by Kristina SauerweinNovember 20, 2018

Malaria affects 216 million people worldwide — mostly younger children in sub-Saharan Africa — and causes 445,000 deaths annually. Although the mosquito-borne, parasitic disease is preventable and curable, barriers exist in diagnosing the illness. The standard blood test used for diagnosis can be cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive, and its availability is limited in settings where malaria is prevalent.

Audrey R. Odom John, MD, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics and of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is developing a simple, inexpensive breath test that can detect malaria, similar to a Breathalyzer used to measure blood alcohol content. Her lab, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has identified six chemical compounds called terpenes that can be detected in human breath to diagnose malaria with high accuracy. Early next year, Odom John will head two clinical trials in Malawi and Kenya to test the device.

Odom John has received numerous accolades for the malaria breath test, including headlining a TEDx Talk in Kansas City, Mo., in late 2015 and, in October, winning the $10,000 first-place prize of the inaugural IDEA Incubator, a Shark Tank-like competition sponsored by IDWeek, the annual meeting of professional health organizations such as the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

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Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Kristina covers pediatrics, surgery, medical education and student life. In 2020, she received a gold Robert G. Fenley Writing Award for general staff writing from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and in 2019, she received the silver award. Kristina is an author and former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for breaking news. Additionally, she covered the 2014 Ferguson unrest for TIME magazine and, for eight years, wrote a popular parenting column for