Mobile Malaria Project - Part III

Mobile Malaria Project - Part III

Through Tanzania, into Kenya, and home.

'We spent the best part of a week driving through Tanzania. It was the most challenging and rewarding drive we’d yet done, and an opportunity for us to switch into adventure mode. With a good chunk of scientific work completed in Zambia, this part of the trip was focused on travelling from there all the way up to Kisumu in Lake Victoria for our next scientific project. We packed away our equipment, secured it safely in the boot of the Labrover, and set off on the main road out of Zambia.'

'There is only one road up to the border and we were kept company by a constant stream of container laden trucks, taking copper out of Zambia and bringing produce in from the Tanzanian coast. On several occasions we saw lorries with punctures and even one or two overturned vehicles, stuck on the side of the road in the remote North without much hope of rescue.

We proceeded through our second border crossing into Tanzania without incident and were immediately met by a noticeably different environment. More colour, more people and more agriculture very quickly demonstrated that this region was more developed than the sparsely populated north of Zambia.

The dusty red road snaked through the green bush, creeping around the edge of the Rungwa Game Reserve. We were never too far from a habitation, and every so often our road would pass through a village full of people waving or shouting at the car.

We decided to take our time, and drove for two days across the Serengeti and the nearby Ngorongoro crater. From the Labrover we saw an incredible spectrum of animals, from elephants and giraffes to wildebeest and zebra. We were even fortunate enough to see some lions. Although we were not on this trip to see animals, it was refreshing to spend a bit of time with nature, reflecting on how far we’d come and our remaining time ahead.'

'Following our days in the Serengeti we drove across the border, and arrived in Kenya in time for World Malaria Day celebrations. The global malaria burden was drastically reduced between 2000 and 2015, largely due to vector control. The widespread deployment of bednets, which are relatively cheap, and the focused use of insecticide spraying inside houses - which is more expensive - are the two interventions that are usually cited as contributing most to the gains in the fight against malaria. If you can control the mosquito, you can control malaria.

We wanted to work with scientists in Kenya for two main reasons. The first was to understand more about their research on mosquitoes and to see how genetics may play a role in its future. The second was to test the feasibility of using our DNA sequencing kit on mosquitoes in low resource settings. Fortunately our host, Dr Eric Ochomo, was full of creative ideas about how the technology could help his work and was keen to trial it in as remote a place as possible.

With Eric we decided to visit a village early in the morning to catch some mosquitoes and then extract DNA from them to sequence with our kit. This would really help us to test whether we would have the capacity to sequence DNA in the field using only the portable sequencing equipment and people that can fit inside one car.

Using some mosquitoes caught that very morning, we were able to lead Eric and his team through the necessary preparatory steps to get the samples ready to run on the machine. It was great to share our training with these scientists, and exciting to think about how they’d be able to use it to monitor mosquito populations in the future. By early afternoon, the sequencing machine was running, just 5 hours after we’d arrived at the village. To put this into context, when Eric and his team have sent samples away to be sequenced, it can take up to a month to get their data back.

There’s a long way to go until this technology is deployable at scale and at a cheap enough cost to be transformational for Eric and his team, but I hope that by exposing them to this new technology, they can see potential for its future development in malaria research. It was also crucial for us to learn from Eric and his team regarding the ways in which they might use this technology in the future. For example, we learnt that the there are two main mosquito species that transmit malaria in Kenya. One of these, Anopheles gambiae, bites inside and so can be stopped by bednets and indoor spraying. The other, Anopheles funestus, bites outside and so those interventions don’t work as efficiently. DNA technology can be used to understand the species composition of mosquito populations and find out which of the two species are more prevalent, which, in turn, has a direct effect on which interventions are most appropriate to use.

'After another few successful runs of the machine and several days working through some of the data with our colleagues, our time in Africa is now coming to an end. The last 8 weeks have been an incredible learning experience and one which I hope will lead to further collaboration, and development of genetic sequencing technology for malaria control in the future. We’re incredibly grateful to Marloe for the opportunity to wear Haskell watches on the road. Robust, reliable and good looking, my trusty Haskell has accompanied me every step of the way, ensuring that we’ve kept to time and looked the part in our many interactions along the way. They’ve been the perfect companion to our Oxford-designed sequencing machines and Coventry-built Land Rover Discovery; a celebration of British design that, combined, helped us to succeed on our journey across Africa.'

It has been our honour to support the team on this incredible modern day adventure. To keep up to date with the Mobile Malaria Project as they continue their work and share their findings back here in the UK, you can follow their progress on Twitter. 

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