How a crowdfunded robot could finally end malaria

Biotech company Sanaria developed an effective malaria vaccine, and now it has launched an Indiegogo campaign to build a robot to scale the project and virtually eliminate the disease.

Dr. Yaroslav Tenzer of Harvard Biorobotics Lab works on the SporoBot design.
Image: Sanaria

Every minute, at least one person dies from malaria.

In total, about 200 million people are infected with malaria each year and 600,000 of them die from the parasite, which is rapidly transmitted by mosquitoes.

Sanaria, a biotechnology company based in Maryland that was founded in 2002 and employs researchers from 17 different countries, reports that is has developed a vaccine to rid the world of the Plasmodium falciparum parasite, which is responsible for more than 98% of malaria-associated deaths worldwide. The vaccine is based on extracting the salivary glands from alive, but weakened, mosquitos to obtain their malaria-infected saliva.

The Sanaria vaccine proved to be 100% effective in initial results from clinical trials in August 2013, and is widely recognized as a promising weapon to fight malaria. To produce the vaccine, the insects drink blood with parasites before they are weakened from radiation, but are kept alive. And that's the key -- keeping the parasites alive for the actual vaccine injection.

Currently, researchers at Sanaria can extract salivary glands from up to 1,000 mosquitoes an hour. The Sanaria manufacturing facility is still in its first clinical phase, but the company anticipates that by hand, that could mean dissecting up to 25 million infected mosquitoes per year.

Problem is, that isn't fast enough to make a dent in the statistics of malaria victims. To speed up the process, Sanaria has developed SporoBot, a robot that can more efficiently and cost-effectively manufacture malaria vaccines -- about 20 to 30 times the amount humans can, adding up to about 625 million mosquitoes a year. They are trying to partially fund it on Indiegogo by raising $250,000 to build a working prototype.

A Sanaria researcher manually removes the salivary gland from a malaria-infected mosquito.
Image: Sanaria

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization that has committed nearly $2 billion in grants worldwide to combat malaria, gave Sanaria $29 million in 2006 to help develop the original vaccine. But projects that require millions of dollars take years to process, and a grant for the new SporoBot initiative was denied last year by the US government because of the sequester that cut back grants to the National Institutes of Health. In order to increase public awareness about malaria and expedite the grant funding process for the vaccine, Dr. Stephen Hoffman, the founder of Sanaria, decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the malaria robot.

"We want to accelerate this process now," Hoffman said. "There's urgency, and it's compelling. Between 1,000 and 3,000 children are going to die today from malaria."

Dr. Yaroslav Tenzer is a post-doc researcher at Harvard who specializes in biorobotics and is one of the developers of the robot, which is being made in Harvard's Biorobotics Lab. The team has been developing the robot for two years.

"We need to make sure what we get [from the] mosquito is only the salivary glands, so we separated the whole process into a few steps," Tenzer said.

Tenzer's team has built and tested components with a variety of different automated processes, but do not yet have a working prototype. The mini model they have created is a concept of how things could look in the future. It was inspired by the concept of a Rube Goldberg machine, according to Sanaria.

The robot restrains the mosquitoes, picks them up, beheads them, carefully extracts their salivary glands, and then collects the glands so they can be incubated, stored, and made into vaccines. A lot of work went into understanding the properties of the body, legs and wings of the mosquitoes, particularly the limitations of the tissue behavior. Researchers decided to use microfluidics (an engineering process used in the development of inkjet printheads and DNA microchips) for now because it is possible to extract the saliva glands in a closed and controlled environment.

"I think the challenge for us as we started looking into it was that not many robots out there [are] dissecting on this small [of a] scale... and we have to make things clean," Tenzer said.

Malaria is one of the most preventable and treatable diseases on the planet, but no one has ever created a vaccine effective enough to eradicate it. The disease was eliminated from the US in the 1950s, but it has persisted in the developing world, particularly in Africa. The CDC reports that in 2010, 91% of malaria cases were on the African continent. Sanaria is primarily focused on African children, the population most at risk of contracting the disease.

Hoffman wants to have a licensed product in five years. Sanaria is working with several teams in Africa to immunize an entire population of 250,000 on an island where there is very intense malaria, in order to demonstrate that they can halt transmission and wipe out the disease. Since the robot (or eventually, robots) manufactures vaccines quicker and cheaper, Hoffman said the vaccine will be low-cost or possibly even free, especially if administered in partnership with a global agency such as UNICEF.

The Indiegogo campaign is to raise money that would otherwise have to come from grants or VCs, but that would take close to a year to raise. If funded the Sanaria and Harvard teams will begin building a prototype as soon as the campaign is over. A quarter million dollars will get them a small-scale prototype, but a large-scale one will eventually require around $2 million.

Through traditional methods, Hoffman said, it takes about $1.5 billion to take a vaccine from conception to finished product. Sanaria's work thus far has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Department of Defense, and others. They've spent about $120 million developing this vaccine, and to complete it, they ultimately need to spend double that amount.

Image: Sanaria

According to Hoffman, in the 1980s, people said they would eliminate malaria within five years. He doesn't want to wait much longer, especially since his vaccine is proven effective.

With the Indiegogo campaign, he wants to appeal to emotions as most healthcare projects do, as well as the public's interest in science, and reach a new audience to promote the importance of eradicating malaria. Hoffman came up with the idea after his sons, who are both in medical school, got him to do a Reddit AMA, after news of Sanaria's vaccine originally took off on Reddit. Hoffman was shocked and pleased with the attention the project received. He thought of it as an entirely different type of audience than what Sanaria had been reaching, and it eventually sparked the idea to utilize crowdfunding.

"I've always felt somehow, we were missing an entire committed portion of the overall population who would want to support something like this," Hoffman said.

"There's rarely the opportunity for the general population to contribute to [the] research and development of science and technology, and that's going to create a game-changing tool for eliminating this disease," he said.

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