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Fighting malaria

Although malaria no longer occurs in the Netherlands, the malaria mosquito and parasite flourish in TropIQ’s lab. They are being used to test new anti-malaria agents. Social enterprise TropIQ Health Sciences is also developing a very promising new agent. “It would be wonderful if this drug could save people’s lives,” says director Dr Koen Dechering.

The fight against malaria has gained momentum over the past decade. Partly thanks to the huge financial injections by Microsoft multi-millionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates, containment of the deadly infection disease is no longer a pipe dream. “When Gates announced in 2007 that he wanted to eradicate malaria, everyone thought he was mad. But the tide has turned. Today the common opinion is that in the long run we will succeed,” says TropIQ director Dr Koen Dechering.

// Our aim is not maximum profit, but maximum impact

The growing wave of new potential drugs and vaccines partly flows through TropIQ’s lab. “We are one of the few labs which can recreate the malaria parasite’s entire cycle – from mosquito to human and back again. We can therefore test the effect of all substances that could break this fatal circle,” Dechering explains. As Professor Robert Sauwerwein, malaria specialist at the Radboudumc, observed several years ago, there was a desperate need for a facility like this. “But he didn’t have the knowledge of large-scale testing,” Dechering adds. “Thanks to my years in the pharmaceutical industry, I did. I was also familiar with malaria, because of my doctoral thesis on this subject. So we decided to set up a platform ourselves and launched TropIQ in 2012.” 

Fireflies 

The company, in which Radboudumc is an important shareholder, soon acquired a prominent position thanks to smart innovations. For example, they integrated genes from fireflies into the malaria parasite, creating parasites which give off light. “In the past, we had to count the number of parasites under a microscope both before and after treatment. Now we only have to measure the amount of light they give off.” TropIQ also came up with the trick of the bar code, whereby each blood tube contains a test substance and a specific piece of DNA or code. “We can now let the mosquitoes feed themselves from dozens of those tubes at one time, because afterwards we can easily check which drug they took. This method has also given us a head start.”

Magic bullet

Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nijmegen researchers also develop drugs themselves. They are currently working on a promising substance which in animal experiments cures the malaria infection, as well as preventing its transfer back to the mosquito. “That’s a crucial feature, because many medicines cure patients but don’t stop them being contagious. That keeps the vicious circle going.” The substance is still being worked on to boost its effectiveness. If all goes according to plan, human trials will take place in 2019.

// A vibrant community has blossomed here

The battle against malaria won’t be won with one magic bullet, says Dechering. “There’s no single vaccine or drug that will provide 100 percent protection. The answer will ultimately consist of a complete package, including impregnated mosquito nets. Obviously, it would be amazing if our substance could be part of that package.” Dechering expects that malaria will be eradicated country by country. Central Africa is the hardest nut to crack, not least because of the lack of money. “There’s a link between sickness and poverty. If you’re sick, you aren’t going to have any income, and without an income, you won’t be able to buy drugs. Our mission as a social enterprise is to break that vicious circle by making our future drugs available as cheaply as possible. Our aim is not maximum profit but maximum impact.

A very dynamic atmosphere

Dechering very much believes in face-to-face meetings. “You can obviously make contacts via the Internet or databases, but I’m a firm believer in direct contact. Face-to-face meetings really work best.” In the short time that TropIQ has been on the campus, this has proved itself in various ways. “For example, I met someone from Tokyo Future Style at the communal lunch and now we’re talking about distributing our products and services in Japan.” A vibrant community has blossomed here over a short period, says Dechering. “An unorthodox company like Rockstart reinforces that sense of freedom, of a place where you can work and relax as well. It’s new, it’s vibrant and risks are being taken. That creates a very dynamic atmosphere

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