What happened after news broke of a potential new malaria vaccine still seems surreal to Dr. Stephen Hoffman. The biotech company he had founded, Sanaria, was launching the vaccine, and one of his twentysomething sons, who is in medical school in Israel, called to say, “Dad, you’re on the top of Reddit.” The next day, at his sons’ urging, he did an AMA on Reddit, and three hours later, after taking “real questions from real people,” he was a convert. “This was something I’d not paid much attention, and now I was doing it,” he said.
This week, Hoffman took another leap into the new-media world, launching a crowd funding site to raise money to build a robot called “SpoRobot” to vastly increase the efficiency of extracting the salivary glands from mosquitoes for the malaria vaccine. The disease remains a global scourge despite rapid advances in providing insecticide nets and spraying homes, mostly with DDT. More than 600,000 people died from malaria last year, according to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of them young children in Africa.
Right now, each staff researcher is able to dissect 160 mosquitoes an hour. They sit on tall chairs with bright red seats peering down into microscopes. It is tedious work. “If we had a robot, it could work 24/7 and it could increase production 20- to 30-fold,” says Hoffman. “And it would require less training. It would be a dramatic improvement to provide the vaccine if we had a robot.”
To get the vaccine to where it is now, Sanaria has relied on grants from the Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and even an “earmark” secured by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) before Congress ended lawmakers’ ability to direct funds. The vaccine is now undergoing six clinical trials, two at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the others in Mali, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, and Germany. “The results are strong, the highest efficacy that anybody has ever seen,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID director, told The Daily Beast. “Every time there’s another obstacle and another naysayer, he overcomes it…The robot is just another way to take it to the next level.”
Hoffman tried to fund the robot through a government grant. He is working with a team at Harvard’s Biorobotic Laboratory and says his proposal scored high enough that it would have been funded two years ago and this year. But in the year of sequestration, when National Institutes of Health grants were cut back, it missed the mark—“and you can’t apply again,” he said. So that’s when he decided to go with crowd sourcing. The son of a friend had just raised millions through a Kickstarter campaign for the movie Veronica Mars and urged him to give it a try. “It’s a very concrete message, and we need it,” he says. The goal is to raise $250,000 in 30 days to build Sporobot, the mosquito-dissecting robot.
The naysayers that Hoffman encountered along the way still have questions about the practicality of the vaccine he is creating. It has to be given intravenously, which is invasive and bothers some people, and full protection may require multiple doses, which makes administering it in large populations more difficult. In sub-Saharan Africa, 400,000 to 500,000 people are at risk of contracting malaria. Clinical trials will test dosages, and perhaps a better delivery system can be found. “Science is science. It’s not magic,” he says. “To have the expectation everything will work the first time around is fantasy.”
Hoffman should know. He’s been at this a long time, and he’s had his share of disappointments. After he finished medical school, he was operating a travelers clinic and teaching medicine to practitioners in San Diego, and feeling, he says, “like I was a phony tropical diseases doctor.” After avoiding the military during the Vietnam era, he surprised himself by joining the Navy, where he could practice clinical tropical medicine. He began working on malaria in Indonesia, learning firsthand how approaches that worked with typhoid and cholera didn’t work with malaria. “Too many children died who I thought I was saving,” he said, a realization that sent him on his decades-long quest to find a vaccine.
For 17 of the 21 years Hoffman spent in the military, he led the Navy’s anti-malaria program, retiring with the rank of captain in 2001. During that time and since, he’s been involved with various attempts to create the elusive vaccine. In 1987, working at Walter Reed in Washington, he was so convinced he and a small group of scientists had cracked the code that they immunized each other with the bite of five mosquitoes. “I was one of the victims. It didn’t work; I got malaria. I got very sick,” he says, recalling how he was so sure of success that he boarded a plane to give a presentation in California. “I got sick there,” he says.
Much later, working at another startup that no longer exists, Celera Genomics, he went back to basics—with the bite of an irradiated mosquito. “I was at the mecca of biotechnology, and I was laughed out of the room. They thought I was nuts,” he says. He resigned in 2002, and in 2003 founded Sanaria. He and his wife, Dr. Kim Lee Sim, a molecular biologist, have done well securing government and foundation grants, but with budgets tight everywhere and their adult sons urging them on, they hope the public will share their enthusiasm for a robot to help defeat malaria. The prospect of a robot delivering the knockout blow is just the kind of plot line to shake loose the dollars.