In the fight against malaria, a disease that still kills 600,000 people every year, the holy grail is a vaccine. Interventions like mosquito nets, or drugs to treat the infected, are vital. But nothing comes close to a vaccine's potential impact. Something low-cost and portable could have a transformative effect in the developing world.
The good news: A treatment may be available relatively soon. Last summer, Sanaria, a Maryland company, successfully trialled its vaccine with six volunteers; it hopes to release a final product within four years. The bad news: The current manufacturing process is expensive and impractical.
To make vaccine, Sanaria needs to harvest malaria parasites from the salivary glands of mosquitos. And at the moment, it does this by hand. Rows of technicians stand over insects, tweezing and putting aside microscopic pieces of flesh. The method works, but it's not efficient. The humans can get through only 150 to 170 insects an hour, according to Stephen Hoffman, Sanaria's founder.
To speed things up, Sanaria is turning to robots. The company is now working with a team from Harvard on a very small device—called SporoBot—that pulls a mosquito inside a chamber, takes off its head, then removes the gland. When completed, it could harvest parasites at 10 to 30 times the rate of humans, Hoffman says, and at a fraction of the cost.
"The basic challenge is manipulating soft tissue. It's very fragile and deforms very easily under any kind of force," says Yaroslav Tenzer, one the Harvard researchers. "But, we're now at the point where each one of these steps works, and we can put it all altogether."
To get to this point, Sanaria has raised more than $120 million from the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But for the Sporobot, it's taking a less conventional funding route: Indiegogo. It's hoping to raise at least $250,000, which will go towards completing a working prototype.
"We want to accelerate this process, so we thought we'd see if a different approach could help us," says Hoffman says, talking of the decision to use crowd-funding. Online, there's none of the bureaucracy and delay that goes with standard grant applications.
"We wanted to see if the general population would have an interest in contributing in thus way," he adds. "Generally, they buy a bed net or drugs for treatment, but they don't invest in a technology. This is a chance to contribute to a knock-out punch for an entire disease."