Time is fast running out to raise money on crowd funding site indiegogo for the most promising vaccine that could stop malaria in its track as the June 5th 2014 deadline approaches. Despite billions of dollars spent annually around the world, malaria still killed close to 700.000 people in 2012. Most of the deaths are in sub Saharan Africa. According to researchers, an efficient, safe and low cost vaccine is still the best way to beat the parasitic disease. Multiple attempts to produce one over the past decades have failed. There is however, renewed promise that a new vaccine PfSPZ already undergoing clinical trials in some African countries might be the magic bullet.
More than $120m has already been invested in producing the vaccine by Sanaria Biotechnology Company, Rockville Maryland (USA) . The company recently launched a $250.000 indiegogo crowd funding campaign to develop a robot (SpoRobot) that will help automate the production of the vaccine.
Dr Stephen Hoffman is Chief Executive Officer of Sanaria
Francis Ngwa has been talking to Dr Hoffman on the line to Maryland, USA
Q. When and how did you start developing a vaccine to fight against malaria?
I started this company (Sanaria) 11 years ago to develop a vaccine for malaria. The goal is to develop a vaccine that can be used in mass administration campaigns to eliminate, to halt transmission of plasmodium falciparum (PF) and eventually eliminate the disease. We are focusing primarily on PF because 98-99 percent of the deaths from malaria in the world particularly in Africa are caused by the parasite called PF
As you are aware, despite an investment of over 2 billion dollars by the international community last year to buy insecticides and distributing bed nests, buying anti malaria drugs and diagnostics, there were at least 600.000 deaths from malaria and more than 200 million infections and most people believe the figures are higher than that. Most of the deaths, more than 90 percent occurred in sub Saharan Africa. A quick calculation shows more than 80 dollars was still spent per infant per year in malaria control efforts but there still were 600.000 deaths last year. The only intervention that has ever been able to eradicate an infectious disease is a vaccine. Small pox was eradicated with a vaccine, polio was eliminated from the western hemisphere with a vaccine . Even though there are occasional flare ups, polio has almost been eradicated around the world because of a vaccine. To help eradicate malaria, any vaccine must be incredibly safe and incredibly well tolerated because even if it is safe but some people cannot tolerate it, we will not be able to immunize everybody. It also has to be effective. Lastly, it must be available for mass administration/ immunization. The cost must be reasonable so that international donor agencies can buy it and give it to anybody who needs it at low cost.
Q I understand you are now running an indiegogo crowd funding drive to raise funds to manufacture a robot that will help in producing the vaccine?
Over the course of the last ten years, we have raised more than 120 million dollars directly or indirectly for the project. We have clinical trials in Africa now in Tanzania and Mali and soon we will start a trial in Equatorial Guinea. We have trials in Germany; we have trials in the United States. We are now working on the next phase of the project which is to improve the efficiency of manufacture. We need to be able to immunize everybody so we need to be able to produce vaccines the most rapidly, the most efficiently and at the lowest cost. To do that, we need to improve our manufacture process by building a robot to automate the dissection process and extraction of the plascenum from the mosquitoes that we grow it in. Currently we do this by hand dissection and it is phenomenally efficient. Our human dissectors can process 160 mosquitoes in an hour but we believe the robot that we have developed the components of with Harvard University can improve the efficiency 20-30 fold and improve the amount that we can produce in the same time and at a lower cost. That is what this crowd funding project is about. We are doing it because of the urgency-1000- 3000 children will die from malaria today. Every day that we delay getting our vaccine out there to people that need it, needless lives will be lost. We are now trying to go out to the general community, to the crowd so to speak in particular to young people who often donate funds for buying bed nets; buying anti malaria drugs but never had an opportunity to invest in research and development.
Q In practical terms, how is the robot going to work?
The robots will work to accomplish specific tasks. You will have lots of mosquitoes; the robot takes those mosquitoes and puts them into channels with micro fluids to the place where they are processed. Their heads are removed and the salivatarye glands are extracted and sent by fluids to another part so to speak, where they are sent to the next stage of the manufacturing process. This is not a robot with hands and heads as you might envision in a movie, it is an automated dissection machine which is what we call robots.
Q You have been working on this project for the past eleven years, have spent more than 120 million dollars. Why do you need 250.000 dollars to finish the project?
This is not to finish the project, it is to get to the prototype level. If you look at our website, you will see that what we say is that we need 1 Million dollars to get to the next level, two million to get to the next level and five million to get to the final product. There is urgency now and, we need to get started quickly. When we apply for grants, it takes a year which is why we are going to the crowd now to get money to move the project forward. We have had to piece together money from small sources like this to get to the 120 million dollar level that the project has already used. We wanted to include people who normally don’t get an opportunity to get involved in a game changing type of research to be able to participate
Q Crowd funding usually has time specifications. What are the time specifications you have for this?
I think it began on May 6 and ends on June 5th 2014.
Q What has been the response since you launched the campaign?
The response has been quite phenomenal from a public relations point of view. We have had more than 300 contributors and have raised about 32.000 dollars so far and now we are putting on a big push to get to our goal.
Q If you have raised just 32.000 dollars, are you sure you will hit your target in the allocated time?
We are not sure we will hit the target but we belief the campaign is already successful because of the publicity we have received and the number of people who are aware of what we are doing that will be involved not just for the short term but for the long term in the process.
Q If for some reason you can’t raise the 250.000 dollars that you need for the project, what is going to happen then?
At every stage of this process, we have had challenges and obstacles. We are intent on finishing just as we have finished other stages of this process. We will figure out how to get the money one way or the other and we will succeed to get the vaccine. We however really need the help of the crowd to do this because it is a phenomenal opportunity for us to bring in partners who will be with us for the long term when we can demonstrate we can eliminate malaria with the vaccine
Q Who is the typical person you are targeting to raise the required money?
We are trying to explore now who is it that is giving us funds. We have received funds from individuals who are in their teens to individuals who are in their eighties. We have received funds from people who are active in business to high school students to young professionals, through to retired people. The crowd funding campaign is normally targeted towards 20-40 year olds. We have been amazed at the wide range of people who have so far contributed to the campaign.
Q Why are you so passionate about eliminating malaria from the face of the earth?
I became a medical doctor so that I can make an impact in my career and basically save lives. I also realized most individuals who were ill and needed doctor’s help were infected with tropical infectious diseases. Shortly after that, I realized that malaria was actually number one to ten on that list. I therefore decided to get involved in tropical medicine and malaria in particular. I treated thousands of children with malaria during my career. I realized it was gratifying to save their saves. Most times I succeeded but sometimes I failed. I have had many children die in my arms literary. I decided that developing a vaccine to prevent the disease was the way to go.
Q Why has it been difficult to develop a vaccine for malaria so far?
We have vaccines for viruses like small pox, measles and polio. We have vaccines for bacteria illnesses like typhoid fever, pneumonia and influenza but parasites like the ones that cause malaria are much more larger, complex and sophisticated. There are no human vaccines against any parasite. We are hoping to be the first to develop a vaccine that will give high level protection to a parasitic disease.
Q You are talking about getting a vaccine at a time there are talks of another vaccine that will soon be developed involving children who are immune to malaria
What they reported on is that the malaria parasite has about 5000 genes encoding about 5000 proteins. It is very large and complex. They have found one protein out of the 5000 where immunity to it seems to be associated with protection. They have not developed a vaccine-that will be at least a decade away. This is a very exciting new development but anything that comes out of that will have to be combined with the vaccine we are developing because it cannot stand alone.
Q If you eventually get the finances you need, how long will it take before we have the vaccine on the market?
We are hoping to be able to submit an application for a licence for the vaccine in 3.5 to 4 years. We will be working to get the vaccine out in about a year after that.
Q How old are you Doctor?
I am 65.
Q Do you think in your lifetime, there will ever be an effective vaccine to fight against malaria?
I think we already have one Francis and I think we will have a licence on the market definitely in my lifetime. We need every support, every dollar that can make this happen. This is why we have turned to crowd funding. We need everybody to be involved even if it is only five dollars. We need people to be involved, we want to be communicating with them and we will be giving them updates on our work.
We need moral and financial support and need that now.
Dr. Hoffman has over 25 years of experience building and managing large, successful research and development programs. From 1987-2001 he was Director of the Malaria Program at the Naval Medical Research Center where he built a focused professional team of over 100 individuals in the United States and overseas working on all aspects of malaria research, but especially vaccine development and genomics. Dr. Hoffman and his team were leaders in the effort to sequence the P. falciparum genome and conducted the first studies in the world that showed that DNA vaccines elicited killer T cell responses in humans. In early 2001 Dr. Hoffman retired from the Navy and joined Celera Genomics as Senior Vice President of Biologics to create a program to utilize genomics and proteomics to produce new biopharmaceuticals. He established this program, organized the effort that successfully sequenced the genome of the mosquito responsible for most transmission of malaria in Africa, Anopheles gambiae, and left Celera in August 2002 to found Sanaria. He holds several professorships, and chairs or serves on multiple advisory boards.
He is a past president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, has edited two books on malaria vaccine development, been the author of more than 380 scientific publications. He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, M.D. from Cornell University Medical College, Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine