Mosquito-Dissecting Robot May Bring Malaria Vaccine Closer to Reality

May 29, 2014



First published on Biotech company Sanaria has spent the last decade working on a malaria vaccine that in early tests has shown tremendous potential to protect people from the deadly infection transmitted by mosquitoes.

Now, to scale up, it’s turning to the crowd to fund a robot that would speed up part of the production process by 20 to 30 times.

The vaccine, called PfSPZ, is made from malaria parasites at the immature, or sporozoite, stage of their life cycle. Sanaria extracts, purifies and weakens the sporozoites to make them into a vaccine, which triggers the immune system to recognize them without actually causing disease, Sanaria says.

The tricky part is, they’re produced inside mosquitoes and concentrate inside mosquitoes’ salivary glands so they can be released during a bite. In order to make the vaccine, the company has to extract those salivary glands, a delicate process that it now does by hand.

But SporoBot, the robot it’s been working on with Harvard University’s Biorobotics Lab, would do that much more quickly and cheaply.

Sanaria says it’s figured out how to make all of the individual components of the robot work and now needs to make them work together. It’s hoping to raise $250,000 through Indiegogo by June 5 to build a small-scale prototype of the robot.

Much of the research behind the vaccine so far has been funded by awards from the NIH, the DOD and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but Sanaria says the sequester has made it harder and more time-consuming to secure those grants. “We at Sanaria feel a strong sense of urgency, and after years of progress, our goal of elimination is in sight,” the biotech says on its crowdfunding page. “We could wait until public funding and economic conditions improve, but waiting comes at the cost of thousands of lives.”

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Indeed. There’s currently no preventive vaccine for malaria, which in 2012 killed an estimated 627,000 people globally, according to the World Health Organization, the majority of them in developing countries.

Sanaria’s vaccine is currently being tested for effectiveness in clinical trials across the world.

[Image credit Sanaria]