This was it. After months of proposal writing, submissions, re-submissions and panel interviews, we were again travelling to the Royal Geographical Society to defend our expedition plan. It was a baking hot day in the middle of the 2018 heatwave and the grass in Hyde Park was as dry as my mouth.
At the beginning of July, a couple of months after we’d submitted our initial application, we learnt that our expedition had been shortlisted for the 2018 RGS Land Rover Bursary, a prestigious expedition grant supplying the recipient with funding and a car for a challenging journey. We went up for our first interview, and in front of a group of seasoned expedition veterans and Land Rover representatives presented the Mobile Malaria Project, an audacious pitch to convert a brand new Land Rover into a mobile genetic sequencing lab and drive it across Africa to study malaria.
Now, after a nervous 10 day wait, we’d been called up to 1 Kensington Gore once more for a final quiz about our expedition. With the help of the team, on the train up that morning, I’d hurriedly put together a document answering some technical and scientific questions that had been worrying the RGS panel. They clearly needed some convincing, so Isaac and I were on our way to answer their queries in person. We waited anxiously in the RGS Pavilion, scanning an exhibition of old Antarctic images. Would the project stay afloat or sink under the ice?
We walked up to the Map Room and sat down amongst green leather, antique books and oak panels. An office fan blew the occasional waft of cool air in our direction to stymie the sultry late afternoon heat. As my mind went back to my rehearsed script the head of research suddenly walked in: “I’m afraid I haven’t got much time to speak to you today, but I just wanted to say Congratulations!”
Isaac and I switched glances. What? We’ve got it? This wasn’t what we were expecting. “You weren’t supposed to let them know yet” the director of expeditions replied. “But yes, well done guys – you’ve got it. You have won the this year’s Land Rover Bursary.”
The document I’d pinged to the RGS from my phone on the train earlier had allayed any fears they’d had about the scientific credentials of the project. Feelings of joy, success and relief immediately flooded within me. I hadn’t realised quite how nervous I’d been, but I tried hard to suppress them in such august surroundings. Stiff upper lip and all that.
Genetics’ iPhone moment
In our original pitch, we described how we intended to take a new, disruptive genetic sequencing technology, no bigger than a chocolate bar, on a journey across Africa. In 2015, similar mobile genetic sequencing was successfully used to trace the spread of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but as malaria geneticists, we wanted to show its potential as a tool for generating meaningful and informative data for malaria control. “In the field of genetics”, I’d pompously began, “we are approaching an iPhone moment”.
I could see the eyes of the panel chair, a seasoned broadcaster, light up. I was in full flow: “we now have more computing power in our pockets than that used to launch the Apollo space mission. This power, aligned with advances in research and technology, will bring genetics out of big academic institutions and into the hands of everyone.”
Genetic sequencing technology has developed at quite a pace and it’s costs are plummeting. Even in the ten years that I’ve been a geneticist, it’s moved from a labour intensive, technical cottage industry used mainly by research scientists, into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Genetics has become cheap, reliable and easy and it’s permeating our lives; from tests for cancer susceptibility to direct-to-consumer ancestry testing. It is omnipresent.
And that, I guess, was my point. Now is the time to start thinking and trialling the use of genetics in the real world. By taking it to low resource field settings, with the help of the RGS, Land Rover and the very latest technology, we could provide a test case for its future deployment at scale. In my field of infectious disease research for example, genetics has great potential to help monitor the emergence and spread of drug resistance as well as to understand transmission chains. But in order to do so, we need to explore the many challenges involved with using this technology remotely in the field.
Malaria is a massive problem across much of sub-Saharan Africa. It kills just under half a million people annually, with a quarter of a billion people succumbing to the disease in a single year. The tragedy is that this is a largely treatable disease and one which we know how to control.
Enormous, coordinated effort over the last 20 years has reduced the burden of malaria by a half, but these gains are now at threat. Over the last three years the dramatic decreases in malaria witnessed over the previous 15 years have stalled and new innovations and approaches are needed if we are continue on the path to eliminating the disease in the next 20 years. Malaria is a global issue which needs to be addressed.
The Mobile Malaria Project is born
Back at our final interview at the RGS, we discussed the details of our expedition in a haze of happiness and sticky heat. Our ambitious pitch had pulled off. We’d been given the green light, and more importantly the loan of a vehicle and the financial support, to travel to Africa to do some cutting edge science.
Our expedition is about two things. First we want to visit researchers and organisations along our African transect to document the work that’s currently been done to understand and control malaria. Secondly, we want to trial mobile genetic sequencing in the field, so that we can show its potential for its use as a tool for monitoring malaria parasite and mosquito populations, as well hopefully generating some new data from previously unsampled countries.
So, eight months after that intensely hot day at the RGS, we are almost there. The result of months of preparation and graft, the Mobile Malaria Project is closing in on its start date.
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.T.E. Lawrence
It’s been a unique, humbling and ultimately empowering experience to develop an idea that once existed only in some incomplete, existential form in my mind and turn it into a living, breathing project. This is particularly the case with this expedition, which combines such a diverse set of technical, scientific and logistical elements. What was once a day dream is close to becoming a reality.