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Microscopic examination of blood smears remains the gold standard for laboratory inspection and diagnosis of malaria. Smear inspection is, however, time-consuming and dependent on trained microscopists with results varying in accuracy. We sought to develop an automated image analysis method to improve accuracy and standardization of smear inspection that retains capacity for expert confirmation and image archiving. Here, we present a machine learning method that achieves red blood cell (RBC) detection, differentiation between infected/uninfected cells, and parasite life stage categorization from unprocessed, heterogeneous smear images. Based on a pretrained Faster Region-Based Convolutional Neural Networks (R-CNN) model for RBC detection, our model performs accurately, with an average precision of 0.99 at an intersection-over-union threshold of 0.5. Application of a residual neural network-50 model to infected cells also performs accurately, with an area under the receiver operating characteristic curve of 0.98. Finally, combining our method with a regression model successfully recapitulates intraerythrocytic developmental cycle with accurate lifecycle stage categorization. Combined with a mobile-friendly web-based interface, called PlasmoCount, our method permits rapid navigation through and review of results for quality assurance. By standardizing assessment of Giemsa smears, our method markedly improves inspection reproducibility and presents a realistic route to both routine lab and future field-based automated malaria diagnosis.
Mathematical modelling provides an effective way to challenge conventional wisdom about parasite evolution and investigate why parasites ‘do what they do’ within the host. Models can reveal when intuition cannot explain observed patterns, when more complicated biology must be considered, and when experimental and statistical methods are likely to mislead. We describe how models of within-host infection dynamics can refine experimental design, and focus on the case study of malaria to highlight how integration between models and data can guide understanding of parasite fitness in three areas: (1) the adaptive significance of chronic infections; (2) the potential for tradeoffs between virulence and transmission; and (3) the implications of within-vector dynamics. We emphasize that models are often useful when they highlight unexpected patterns in parasite evolution, revealing instead why intuition yields the wrong answer and what combination of theory and data are needed to advance understanding.
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