Researchers create automatic larvicide dispenser against Zika virus

Project involving three Brazilians wins prize for Most Implementable Solution at Zika Innovation Hack-a-thon in Boston (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A device that automatically dispenses enough larvicide to keep residential water tanks free from mosquito larvae for up to a year won the Most Implementable Solution award at the Zika Innovation Hack-a-thon, which was held in early April in Boston, Mass., to help develop innovations that address the spread of Zika virus and other vector-borne diseases.

The team that designed the Larvicide Automatic Dispenser (LAD) included three Brazilians: engineer Marcelo de Castro, founder of Linpix Software LLC, and Adriano Schneider and Denis Jacob Machado, PhD students at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte. Machado was supported by a scholarship from FAPESP.

The other members of the team were Gregorio Linchangco, also a doctoral student at UNC Charlotte, clinician M. Ihsan Kaadan (Massachusetts General Hospital), secondary student Kara Luo (Lexington High School), undergraduate Karen Cheng (Boston University School of Medicine), and engineer Paul Chang (Cornell University).

“Castro had the idea of designing an automated dispenser after he saw reports in the Brazilian press showing government health workers manually applying larvicide to water tanks on monthly visits to neighborhoods infested with the Aedes aegypti mosquito,” Machado said.

Occasional manual spraying of water tanks is not effective, he went on, because the water in domestic tanks circulates and the larvicide disperses rapidly. “The larvae of this mosquito take between seven and ten days to develop, so the method only protects tanks for about a week,” Machado said.

The group produced a prototype of the LAD in a mere 48 hours using a 3D printer. The dispenser, which will be launched under a different name in Brazil, is a portable plastic device that stays under the water surface and assures a steady concentration of larvicide even after the tank has emptied and refilled several times. They estimate that maintenance will be necessary only once a year.

“This means the number of visits can be drastically reduced while increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the activity,” Machado added. “One of our concerns was the need to find ways and means of using the smallest possible amount of chemical to eliminate larvae. Taking its life cycle into account, there’s no need to add larvicide every day. About once a week is sufficient.”

Machado has a bachelor’s degree in marine biology and is studying for a PhD in bioinformatics with the aim of developing computational strategies that can be used to understand the evolution of toxins in amphibians. In Brazil, he is affiliated with the University of São Paulo’s Bioscience Institute (IB-USP), where his supervisor is Professor Taran Grant.

“I’m deeply interested in toxicity,” he said, “and when they invited me to join the team, I was especially keen to make sure the amount of larvicide released by the dispenser shouldn’t be an environmental hazard or pose a threat to the people who live in the dwelling with the water tank.”

In the US, Machado, Schneider and Linchangco are supervised by Professor Daniel Janies, head of UNC Charlotte’s Department of Bioinformatics & Genomics.

Schneider originally began a PhD project on the use of bioinformatics tools to study HIV/AIDS but switched focus when the Zika epidemic emerged. “Since January, I’ve been studying the evolution of Zika virus and partnering with experts in immunology to try to understand what genetic alterations the virus has undergone to reach its present pathogenicity,” he said.

Hacking Zika

The Zika Innovation Hack-a-thon, held at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston on April 2nd and 3rd, 2016, was attended by some 150 professionals interested in global health and innovation. The initiative was organized by MGH’s Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) and Global Disaster Response. The participants were challenged to develop innovations that addressed the spread of Zika virus and other vector-borne diseases in 48 hours.

Hack-a-thons, hack days or hackfests were invented in the late twentieth century in the US to encourage computer programmers and other professionals involved in software and hardware development to collaborate intensively on specific projects.

“More recently we’ve seen the rise of the innovation hack-a-thon,” Machado explained. “This kind of event is typically held as a response to the need for solutions to a specific problem, in this case, combating Zika.”

In addition to the award given to the LAD as the Most Implementable Solution, other projects won awards for the Most Innovative Solution or the Innovation that Promises the Greatest Public Health Impact. The most innovative solution was judged to be a mobile application called Team Larva Finder that detects the presence and geographic location of specific mosquito larvae. Two projects won the award for innovations with the greatest potential impact on public health: a mobile tool that allows users to report high-risk mosquito breeding areas and a game that teaches children about mosquito risks and vector control strategies.

In addition to a symbolic cash prize, the winners will receive logistical support from CAMTech to transform the idea into a product. “CAMTech has an innovation platform and helps the groups with patent applications and product development, as well as connecting them with investors or other sources of funding,” Machado said. “Hack-a-thons are an interesting model because they bring together professionals from a range of different fields. Some ideas may not be feasible to start with, but they become implementable when worked on by a team.”