Fighting against 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 itself. “It would be wonderful if this drug were to 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 an illusion. “When Gates announced in 2007 that he wanted to eradicate malaria, everyone thought he was crazy. But the tide has turned. Today the common opinion is that in the long run we will succeed”, says TropIQ director Dr Koen Dechering.
The growing wave of new potential drugs and vaccines partly flows through TropIQ’s lab. “We are one of the few labs able to recreate the malaria parasite’s entire cycle – from mosquito to human and back again. Therefore we can test the effect of all substances that could break this fatal circle”, Dechering explains.
As professor Robert Sauwerwein, malaria specialist at the Radboudumc, observed a number of years ago, there was a desperate need for a facility like this. “But he did not have 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 such a platform ourselves and started TropIQ in 2012.”
The company, in which Radboudumc is an important shareholder, soon required a prominent position thanks to smart innovations. For instance, they integrated genes from fire flies 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 ánd a specific piece of DNA or, in other words, a 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.”
The Nijmegen investigators, who are supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also develop drugs themselves. They are working on a promising substance which in animal experiments cures the malaria infection, as well as prevents its transfer back to the mosquito. “That’s a crucial feature, because a lot of medicines cure patients, but do not stop them from being contagious. That keeps the vicious circle going.” The substance is still being worked on to further increase its effectiveness. According to plan the trials on humans will take place in 2018.
The battle against malaria will not be won with one magic bullet, according to Dechering. “There is no single vaccine or drug that is going to provide 100 percent protection. The answer will ultimately consist of a complete package, including impregnated mosquito nets. Of course it would be absolutely fabulous, 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 is a link between sickness and poverty. If you are sick, you are not going to have any income, and without income, you are not able to buy any drugs. Our mission as a social enterprise is to break that vicious circle, for instance, by making our future drugs available as cheaply as possible. Our aim is not maximum profit, but maximum impact.”
A very dynamic atmosphere
TropIQ moved onto Novio Tech Campus in mid-2016. “Our premises at Radboudumc were getting too small, but it was just as important for us to look for a different environment”, director Koen Dechering explains. “At this stage we mainly need a commercial environment and expertise. The Campus is the ideal place for that. Take Avivia here. They are experts in the formulation of drugs, so they know how to turn a substance into a tablet. That will be really valuable to us in the longer term.”
Dechering very much believes in face-to-face meetings. “You can make contacts via the Internet or databases of course, but I am 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 proven itself in various ways. “For instance, I met someone from Tokyo Future Style at the joint lunch and we are now talking about the distribution of our products and services in Japan.”
A vibrant community has blossomed here in a short time, according to Dechering. “An unorthodox company like Rockstart reinforces that sense of freedom, of a place where you can work and relax as well. It is new, it is vibrant and risks are being taken. That creates a very dynamic atmosphere.”