Robots Help in Malaria Fight

May 13, 2014, 8:56 a.m.

In its effort to develop a unique malaria vaccine, the American company Sanaria wants to build a robot that will do what now requires a line of trained humans with microscopes: dissecting half-frozen mosquitoes with tiny needles to extract their salivary glands.

Inside the glands are malaria parasites, the key ingredient of Sanaria’s vaccine. The insects have been allowed to drink blood teeming with parasites, then dosed with enough radiation to weaken but not kill those parasites.

The enfeebled parasites are then extracted for injection into people, where they can create an immune reaction but cannot reproduce quickly enough to create disease.

The time-consuming work of hand dissection has been a bottleneck in the process. The robot, being developed in conjunction with the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory, should be faster and more efficient, said Dr. Stephen L. Hoffman, Sanaria’s founder.

To finance the project, the company, based in Rockville, Md., hopes to raise $250,000 through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site. The campaign starts Tuesday.

The company turned to crowdfunding because its government grants have been restricted by sequestration and foundation funds are insufficient, Sanaria said in its campaign proposal.

Last year, the vaccine was shown to protect six volunteers who got five intravenous doses over 20 weeks, so it is moving to larger trials in the United States, Germany, Equatorial Guinea, Mali and Tanzania. Malaria remains one of the world’s deadliest diseases, with at least 200 million infections and more than 600,000 deaths in 2012.

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