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Malarial vaccine firm seeks crowdfunding for robo-saliva surgeon

Publicly funded machine could quash mankind's deadliest killer

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A team of scientists and engineers is asking for the public's help to fund a robot designed to dissect mosquitos and industrialize the production of the first vaccine for one of mankind's deadliest diseases.

The robot prototype, dubbed SpoRobot, is designed to cut the saliva glands out of mosquitos that are infected with the malaria parasite. These glands will then be used to make a vaccine for malaria, and the American biotech firm Sanaria has started an Indigogo campaign to raise the $250,000 needed to build the prototype.

Mosquitoes themselves are more of an irritant to humankind, but their saliva can host the parasites that cause malaria, which is introduced to humans and other animals when female insects feed on blood. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, malaria killed about 627,000 people in 2012, over three quarters of whom were under the age of five.

Making a vaccine for malaria is more difficult than for a virus, since the disease is caused by parasites, which are harder to deal with. Sanaria has completed the first human trials of a malaria vaccine that's made by taking parasites from the glands of mosquitos, irradiating them to cut their ability to multiply, and then injecting the weakened organisms into humans.

The PfSPZ vaccine developed by Sanaria proved highly effective in human trials, and last April the company published a paper showing that for the first time people had been successfully immunized against the killer disease. But manually removing the glands from the insects is a slow process, and with billions of people at risk from the disease, the process needs to be mechanized.

"Right now our own dissectors can do 150 mosquitos per hour per person, but with SpoRobot we can increase that to 3,000 per hour," Sanaria's founder Dr. Stephen Hoffman told The Register. "This would increase the efficiency of our vaccine production by 20 or 30-fold."

The firm has spent millions developing the vaccine, but lately funds have been harder to come by. To speed up the process of getting to full production – and to raise awareness of the problems malaria causes – the firm is asking for crowdfunding support to get the project going as fast as possible rather than wait for the next round of funding.

The SpoRobot was designed by a team at the Harvard Biorobotics Lab, and uses microfluidics to hold the insects in position while a robot arm does the surgery. Groups of mosquitos are held in the machine's central chamber and a robot arm removes the 100 micron-wide glands and harvests them for vaccine production.

"The current design is about tabletop size," designer Yaroslav Tenzer from the Harvard team told El Reg. "But we can run larger designs in parallel and really improve the efficiency with which the vaccine can be produced."

If the company makes its $250,000 crowdfunding goal, it will have enough to build the prototype robot operator, and with another $2m the full industrial machine could be developed. If the crowdfunding attempt fails, however, Dr. Hoffman said that the work to make more vaccine would continue.

"We need to carry on; we will figure out what to do next," he said. "We've spent years on developing this vaccine, and when we started out people said the project was a crazy idea. Now we have a vaccine in trials and the need for it has never been greater." ®

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