February 22, 2016      

?It?s [malaria] probably the greatest single source of human tragedy in the history of our species.?
?Dr. Thomas Richie, research coordinator of the US Military Malaria Vaccine Program
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It?s now up to a scraggly-looking, but highly effective, proof-of-concept robot named SporoBot to finish the battle with malaria that Dr. Stephen Hoffman began over twenty years ago.

If this mosquito dissecting whiz can wiggle itself into a viable prototype that can then be manufactured in quantity, Hoffman will be victorious.

SporoBot is sort of like the cavalry riding in at the last moment to turn the tide in favor of the good guys. And if there is anything that?s desperately needed for global health, it?s a decisive win in the frantic conflict with this deadly foe.

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Hoffman?s discovery: The first-ever, 100-percent effective anti-malaria vaccine. A whole-parasite or sporozoite vaccine ( the PfSPZ vaccine) produced from the partially irradiated parasites in the salivary glands of infected mosquitoes.

SporoBot?s challenge: To dissect out of an individual mosquito?s salivary glands?one mosquito at a time? the plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite responsible for more than 95 percent of malaria-associated severe illness and death.

If successful, Hoffman and SporoBot will begin to put an end to sobering malaria facts like these (UNICEF):

  • Malaria kills one child every 30 seconds, about 3000 children every day.
  • Malaria afflicts nearly 220M people a year?predominantly African children under five years of age?and kills more than one million people worldwide.
  • Malaria has been estimated to cost Africa more than $12B every year in lost GDP, even though it could be controlled for a fraction of that sum.
  • Malaria continues to slow economic growth in Africa by more than 1 percent a year.

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“This was a concept that most people thought was impossible,” said Dr Kim Lee Sim, executive vice president of process development and manufacturing at Sanaria, the Rockville, MD bio-company founded by Hoffman in 2003). “People said: ‘This is a crazy idea.'”

Very crazy, in fact, as Dr. Pierre Druilhe, a malaria expert, let it be known to the New York Times: ?Even calling it a vaccine is a compliment. It has no chance of offering protection. It is like Captain Ahab in the movie trying to kill Moby Dick with his knife.?

Hoffman proved that statement incorrect.

Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, MD, says of the discovery: “The results are important because they demonstrate for the first time the concept that a malaria vaccine can provide a high level of protection.”

The method developed involves extracting malaria parasites dosed with radiation from the saliva glands of mosquitoes. Unfortunately, the production of the vaccine is hindered by the fact that the process is time consuming and requires a production line of highly trained scientists.

Enter SporoBot

As reported by International Business Times, Sanaria now wants to build a robot in conjunction with the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory in order to manufacture the vaccine on a large scale.

“This project took a lot of creativity,” said Dr Robert Howe, professor of engineering at the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory. “There aren’t a lot of references out there about how to design mosquito dissection robots.

“At this point we’ve gone through proof of concept, we’ve developed capabilities no one has ever seen before.”

Sense of urgency: crowdfunding

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Hoffman says his project can?t wait for better economic conditions to create an opportune moment for funding via traditional methods. He needs to act now. He?s opted for crowdfunding through Indiegogo.

?The recent government sequester reduced our access to funds that would have otherwise been available for projects such as SporoBot.

?We at Sanaria feel a strong sense of urgency, and after years of progress, our goal of elimination is in sight. We could wait until public funding and economic conditions improve, but waiting comes at the cost of thousands of lives.

?Grants from private and public institutions continue to support our ongoing research and clinical trials at home and overseas in Africa and Europe. But the processes in place to seek multi-million dollar grants to fund new projects, such as SporoBot, can take years to process, and they are not guaranteed.

Just last year, a grant for SporoBot was denied due to the government sequester.

About malaria

How does malaria kill?

“When a malaria-infected mosquito pierces human skin,? writes Luke Mullins in the Washingtonian, ?it shoots a handful of microscopic parasites into the bloodstream. The parasites squirm into the liver, where they quietly multiply. About a week later, a violent mob of 3 million parasites explodes back into the bloodstream, savaging red blood cells and overwhelming the immune system. The incursion triggers fevers, headaches, chills, and fatigue. In severe cases?the disease chokes off blood flow to the brain, causing coma or death.?