Friday, 11 September 2015

Teeny tiny scalpels

Nearly 1 million children die each year from malaria, one horse of the troika of infant death along with tuberculosis and infectious diarrhoea.  Only TB is caused by a single agent Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Fatal infectious runs is most likely caused by rotavirus but a number of bacterial species (Vibrio cholerae for starters) will flush you to death. Likewise fatal malaria is most likely to to be Plasmodium falciparum but several other Plasmodium species will give kids malaria bad enough to worry their parents witless. Like with car-crashes, it's not sensible to count only the dead: 200 million people contract malaria every year and that's a lot of sick children and anxious parents (and lost work days in shoe- and shirt-factories). If we could find a cure for any of these malarias we'd be increasing the net happiness of poor people in the third world.

Steve Hoffman has been wrestling with malaria for nearly 30 years, starting with a stint as a [US Navy!] doctor in Jakarta in Indonesia, like Christiaan Eijkman before him. Like Barry Marshall with Helicobacter "stomach ulcers" pylori, and JBS Haldane with CO2 poisoning, the bold Hoffman wasn't above experimenting on himself: in his case by getting himself punctured by thousands of malaria-enriched mosquitoes. The trick was to irradiate the mosquitoes to nobble the Plasmodium within, so that they would be recognised early by the human immune system but be incapable to propagating within the red blood cells of the unwilling host.  Now it might be possible in a lab setting to hold a box containing 1000 angry mosquitoes up to your arm but it won't scale up to propagating the cure out along the bicycle tracks of the Third World.

Hoffman accordingly started thinking of other ways of getting billions of irradiated Plasmodium out of millions of irradiated mozzies and into a chilled vial whose contents could be injected intravenously. He and his wife Kim Lee Sim came up with a seemingly backwards reculer pour mieux sauter idea to micro-dissect out the salivary glands of the Anopheles mosquitoes and throw them into a bucket for processing, like a mini-abattoir. Hey, I know about this: dissecting out [Drosophila] salivary glands under adverse circumstances was one of the the high points of my undergraduate career. It's a technique, it's possible, you get better at it with practice, but it is desperately inefficient and time-consuming. Could it be done with nano-robots?  Last Summer, accordingly, Hoffman and Sim's kitchen-table company Sanaria, launched a crowd-funding Indiegogo appeal to raise $250,000 to develop the Sporobot.  Propaganda video.

Sporobot is a machine that will hunt down living mosquitoes, restrain them, turn them round and pull off their little heads to reveal the salivary glands.  How difficult could that be, right? [R] Neat, eh!? but that idea didn't appeal to many more than 500 crowd-people who in total contributed $45,000. They probably should have included a picture of a dead baby, that worked recently for mobilising Europe to do something about the Syrian refugee crisis.  There are a million to choose from every year not just when the Islamic world is in melt-down.  Is it that most of the malaria-dead babies are black?

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