Thursday, 21 February 2013

Kids Dream Up 'Mosquito Syringe'

Radha and gopis celebrating Holi -18th C
Come to think of it, India can lay claim to having invented the syringe. Ancient paintings of 'Holi' celebrations show the use of squirting instruments that pack a colourful punch, not much different from those you might encounter in a north-Indian street now during Holi. But the modern medical syringe is an invention from the mid-19th Century, and it has served patients and doctors well all these years. But now 'kid researchers' at a biotechnology company are dreaming big about unleashing "mosquito syringes" to deliver vaccines.

An interesting concept
No, it is not an April 1st joke; this is for real. Provita is a biotechnology company and what sets it apart from the others in its class is the fact that all the company's employees are under-18 'juveniles' ! Everyone on the 15-plus team, from research and development to finance, is in high school. The sixteen year-old CEO of the company and his team have been able to impress the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with their idea that the Foundation now funds the research. The proposal was for a "flying syringe", a tool that harnesses mosquitoes as a vector to deliver vaccines to humans.

The 'young' company was founded in 2008 when some science-focused high-school kids decided to collaborate with other business-minded students on a business plan competition for their research. CEO Joshua Meier was a finalist in the 2012 Google Science Fair. The firm has a stem cell lab and a microbiology lab and other sophisticated equipment, and has supporters like the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to help with future development of the firm.

Their first goal will be to "genetically engineer" mosquitoes so that they can produce and deliver a vaccine, via their saliva, for the West Nile Virus. The researchers said utmost care will be taken to ensure that the mosquitoes will be sterilized to prevent any out-of-control problems. The company's first product, Coagula, will be targeted at haemophiliacs. The haemophiliac's blood has no tendency to clot naturally and so they have to regularly (often several times a week) take coagulants to make their blood thicker -- a painful procedure that also carries with it the risks of infection etc. The "mosquito syringe" method will be painless and efforts are on to develop a treatment that has to be taken once in a few months.

Given the track record of the company and the enthusiasm and expertise of the young team, it is more than likely that such a revolutionary method of vaccine delivery will be the norm in the days to come. Be careful, though, with that swatter when mosquitoes start buzzing!

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  1. Interesting, but this can be a potential weapon to deliver targeted DNA toxins.

    1. C'mon, it is not the first time that an invention had a 'darker' side; think of TNT ...