Malaria is both preventable and curable. Yet more than one million people—most of them children—are thought to have died of the disease last year, which is about as many as the year before. Governments and aid agencies have set up many programs to distribute antimalarial drugs, insecticides, and bed nets in endemic areas, and these important tools have curbed malaria’s spread through the poorer parts of the world. But existing countermeasures have only held the epidemic in check; they have not eradicated it. To have a real chance of conquering this disease, we need truly new approaches.
In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked Intellectual Ventures to create new technologies that will not only fight malaria but will eventually eliminate this scourge of humanity altogether. Already our team of entomologists, epidemiologists, physicists, and other scientists have come up with innovative approaches that attack the parasite that causes the disease from several angles. Some make it easier to diagnose the disease quickly and accurately. Others destroy the parasites directly. Still others target the mosquitoes that serve as hosts to the parasites and spread malaria from person to person.
We believe that introducing the right combination of these technologies—while keeping older approaches in place—will lead to a real chance of completely eradicating malaria.
Optics and Magnetism to Diagnose and Treat
In the areas of the world that suffer most from malaria, such as sub-Saharan Africa, one problem plaguing malaria control is rather basic: there is simply no cheap, easy way to diagnose it. Current diagnostic techniques are costly and cumbersome for remote clinics: blood must be drawn, colored with a chemical stain, and examined under a microscope for the telltale signs of parasitic infection. This procedure requires unwieldy equipment, hours of analysis, and trained personnel.
As a result of these hurdles, people in Africa who show up at clinics with a fever and chills are frequently not even tested for malaria—they’re simply given antimalarial drugs. Overuse of the medicines has caused drug-resistant strains of the parasite to emerge and spread widely. In some of the areas where they are most needed, the drugs have been rendered all but useless. We are investigating faster and more useful ways to diagnose malaria. Two of our inventions detect malaria parasites by identifying the waste products they leave behind as they digest human blood.
After infecting a person, the parasites enter red blood cells and feed on hemoglobin, an iron-bearing molecule that allows the cells to ferry oxygen to all parts of the body. The parasite is unable to use the iron-containing part of hemoglobin, and sequesters it in the form of tiny crystals called hemozoin. The presence of hemozoin in a patient is thus a strong indication that he or she has been infected with malaria.
Most previous work on using hemozoin to attack malaria has focused on the crystal’s chemical properties. Our team are instead exploiting the unusual physical properties of hemozoin—specifically, how it behaves in response to light and magnetism—to produce a better diagnostic technique.
Not long ago, researchers discovered that hemozoin emits distinctive light signals whenever it is hit by an ultrashort, high-intensity laser pulse. Experiments with a femtosecond laser at the Intellectual Ventures Lab have confirmed this optical fingerprint of hemozoin. Our inventors have applied for patents on noninvasive diagnostic devices that could send brief pulses of laser light into blood capillaries in eye or skin. If the blood cells carry malaria parasites, the hemozoin inside them will send back light signals that give away its presence.
We are attempting to find ways to use this approach to treat malaria as well as to detect it. By tuning the light used in the laser beam to just the right wavelength, we hope to induce the hemozoin to emit optical pulses that actually destroy the parasite’s DNA without harming the surrounding human tissue.
Besides being optically active, hemozoin is very slightly magnetic. That opens another avenue for attacking the parasite. We’ve invented ways to magnetically shake or spin hemozoin crystals, rupturing the parasite’s innards enough to kill it.
Each of these hemozoin-based techniques under development is appealing because it promises to be highly selective in harming malaria parasites without damaging anything else in an infected person’s body. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how the parasites could evolve resistance to them, as they have to conventional drugs.
Our scientists are also researching advanced optical microscopy techniques using conventional microscopes for in vivo detection of hemozoin.
Mosquito Control with Lasers and Diets
The total eradication of malaria will be achieved not by a single magic bullet but by a calculated combination of the best approaches tailored to a specific region of the world. So to thwart malaria from another angle, we are also inventing methods to kill the mosquitoes that spread it.
A completely novel invention, called a Photonic Fence, detects mosquitoes flying at a distance and shoots them down with lasers. Although this approach may sound high-tech (and indeed some of the inventors are veterans of the antiballistic missile program), the basic components needed for such a system largely exist already in inexpensive consumer electronics, such as laser printers, Blu-ray disc writers, camcorders, and video game consoles. The working prototype at Intellectual Ventures Lab was constructed almost entirely from parts purchased second-hand on eBay and similar websites.
The system would create a virtual fence made out of light— we call it a “Photonic Fence.” Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps on each fence post would beam infrared light at adjacent fence posts up to 100 feet (30 meters) away; the light would then hit strips of retroreflective material (similar to that used on highway signs) and bounce straight back toward the illuminator. A camera on each fence post monitors the reflected light for shadows cast by a hapless insect flying through the vertical plane of light.
When an invading insect is detected, our software identifies it by training a nonlethal laser beam on the bug and using that illumination to estimate the insect’s size and also to measure how fast its wings are beating. Using this method, the system can not only distinguish among mosquitoes, butterflies, and bumblebees, but it can even determine whether a mosquito is male or female! (Females are significantly larger than males and have slower wingbeats.) This is useful because only female mosquitoes bite humans.
Our software is able to track a mosquito in flight once it establishes that it is a valid target. After running safety checks to ensure no unintended object is in view, the system activates a second, more powerful laser that zaps the mosquito, causing death either by damage to its DNA (an unconfirmed hypothesis) or by overheating. We’ve built in safeguards that ensure that the system doesn’t fire when anything much larger than a mosquito is in the photonic fence.
Electricity can be sporadic in regions where malaria is endemic, so we are trying to optimize the system to use as little power as possible. We are studying which laser wavelengths are most energy-efficient at disabling mosquitoes and just how much damage one must inflict to the insects to disrupt their ability to spread malaria.
Producing a photonic fence inexpensively enough to deploy in developing nations will require clever engineering to adapt existing consumer electronics technologies for this new application. This approach could offer a new tool for mosquito control that works without constant human attention and with little or no collateral damage to the local ecology. It could thus provide an alternative or a supplement to bed nets, insecticides, and other existing approaches to mosquito population control.
In addition to this novel way to exterminate mosquitoes, we have invented a new way to lure them away from a human blood meal: a food even tastier to the mosquito palate.
Biologists at the lab have been experimenting with many different recipes for an engineered blood substitute. The substitute would include the proteins, amino acids, salts, and other nutrients that are naturally found in blood. It would also mimic the temperature and viscosity of the real thing and be offered in a thin sac meant to simulate human skin. If this substitute is attractive enough, some of the mosquitoes will feed on it instead of on people. That alone could substantially reduce the spread of malaria from person to person. A chemical or bacterium added to the synthetic blood could also kill mosquitoes that eat it or could prevent them from producing offspring.
To lay the foundation for further inventions, we have built an insectary at the lab and are actively raising mosquitoes for basic research on the acoustics of mosquito wingbeats, the biomechanics of mosquito flight, and other aspects of mosquito behavior that may lead to novel tools against the insidious diseases carried by this pest.
Putting it All Together
Because no single technology will be able to defeat malaria globally, a team at Intellectual Ventures is constructing a highly advanced supercomputer model that uses computational science to project the effects of an eradication campaign that uses several tools at once in a particular place and at a particular time.
This software will provide a much-needed tool for public health authorities as they consider all of the tools at their disposal—older standbys as well as new inventions—and how to combine them for the maximum effect at the minimum cost. Through a wide-reaching strategy and with the help of many partners, we hope to make important contributions to the global effort to make malaria a scourge of the past.
There has been a ton of coverage in the media about IV’s inventing to detect, treat, track, and eradicate malaria. Here is a sampling of the coverage.
Gizmodo, This Is a Mosquito Getting Killed By a Laser
New York Times, Using Lasers to Zap Mosquitoes
CNET, Watch a laser gun kill mosquitoes
The Toronto Star, Lasers use ‘Star Wars’ shield technology to zap mosquitoes: ‘You could kill billions of mosquitoes a night and you could do so without harming butterflies’
Mashable, Mosquito Death Ray in Action at TED
Popular Science, Video: Long-Awaited Mosquito-Killing Laser in Action
Fast Company, Bill Gates-Funded Super Laser Targets, Destroys Buzz
Smart Planet, Microsoft alum fights malaria by zapping mosquitoes with lasers
WIRED, TED 2010: Death Star Laser Gun Zaps Mosquitoes Dead
TechFlash, Myhrvold looks to zap malaria goodbye with laser-based system
Boing Boing, Shooting mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers
Scobleizer, Nathan Myhrvold on laser zapping malaria killing mosquitoes
Physorg.com, Researchers demonstrate mosquito laser in action