Malaria vaccinations are often seen as a sort of pipe dream by health care professionals. To date, no vaccination for a parasite has ever been shown to have more than marginal effects on curbing transmission — until now. A vaccination trial that’s currently underway is showing remarkable results: 100% protection from contracting malaria.
The workers at Sanaria, whose single aim is to wipe out this deadly disease, started from humble beginnings, working out of an 800 square foot strip mall in Maryland. Today, they have a state of the art lab where hundreds of malaria-infected mosquitoes are dissected by hand, and used to make the potent vaccine that goes by the name PfSPZ.
The process is delicate; saliva glands from infected female mosquitoes are removed and then dosed with radiation to weaken them. They are then put into a solution and injected. Trials have shown correct dosage gave complete immunity to the volunteers who participated. The release of these findings in Science Magazine garnered Sanaria international press and in 2014, they were the given the Best Prophylaxis Vaccine Award by the World Vaccine Congress.
When speaking to Stephen Hoffman, a tropical medicine specialist and the CEO of Sanaria, there is a clear urgency in his voice. Although no doubt he has rattled off malaria statistics more times than he can count, he remains passionate about what these figures mean. “We spend 2 billion in malaria control efforts each year,” he says, “that’s more than 80 dollars per child per year. In some areas, that figure reaches 1500-2000 dollars per child.” He notes how ineffective this is when we compare it to the 600,000 deaths worldwide from malaria, and the nearly 2 million cases. “It’s just not working.”
The lack of viable alternatives is the driving force behind an ambitious plan to get the vaccine out and ready for use by 2017. However, to reach these goals, Sanaria has taken a whole new approach to vaccination grants in the form of crowdfunding from Indiegogo.
The Sporobot is a machine designed to quickly collect and dissect the saliva glands of female mosquitoes. Right now, that work is all being done assembly-line style, by hand in his lab. And although scientists are able to dissect 160 mosquitoes per hour, the ability of the Sporobot will make that 30 times as efficient. That means the vaccine will be that much cheaper, and will be widely available in regions where it’s needed most.
“Everything we’ve done so far is by piecing together small funds from mid level donors. We saw crowdfunding as an opportunity to get the public involved in this cause,” Hoffman said.
He’s also willing to put his money where his mouth is. In an experiment, reminiscent of a mad scientist, Hoffman has allowed himself to be bitten by thousands of malaria-infected mosquitoes. The first round of vaccinations his team had developed was ineffective, and he suffered through a bout of malaria before heading back in to improve upon it. Since then, his team developed a vaccine that provided him with full immunity against the legions of malaria-ridden mosquitoes he lets surround his body.
“It is well tolerated, safe and effective, and that’s the whole point,” he says matter of factly. “But we also need the Sporobot to make it cost effective.” Recent government measures, pulling out funding from numerous scientific ventures, have also placed a burden on Sanaria. “So we decided to give the public a chance to invest in research; tangible, critically important research.”
Hoffman also points out that other malaria vaccination programs being tested right now are only experimenting on children. “The fact is, to wipe out malaria, we’re going to have to develop something that works for everyone.” Currently Phase 2 trials are underway in Tanzania, Mali, Guinea, Germany and Bethesda with future testing scheduled for Myanmar and Burkina Faso.
Wiping out the ability for mosquitoes to transmit malaria would diminish this disease exponentially in little more than a decade. Furthermore, it eradicates the only other method that’s been shown to effectively work: covering cities, villages and pastures in DEET, a chemical that even scientists are incredibly wary of.
“We have to develop it at a reasonable cost so we can provide it to UNICEF and other health workers,” Hoffman says. “We have 400 million people to reach, and by using Sporobot, we can bring down that cost down critically.” He notes that the standard cost of developing a vaccine is around 1.5 billion dollars. With public assistance, “we can do it at lower cost in a shorter period of time.”
Meaning that if Stephen Hoffman has his way, and the public takes just a bit of action, in a few years, malaria could be a thing of the past.