Whether it's during peacetime or war, U.S. armed forces stationed in remote regions of the world often must defend themselves against a determined enemy. It's one that is not easy to outwit and--if not combated--can be deadly.
It is not a high-tech armament or stealthy military personnel. It is the mosquito, carrier of a variety of strains of the potentially fatal malaria.
Help, however, may be on the way in the form of a biotech solution provided by a Camarillo firm.
Medical Analysis Systems, through its research and development company Navix, has been awarded a $750,000 grant from the Walter Reed Army Research Hospital to develop a single test strip that will detect the presence and strain of malaria in mosquitoes throughout the world.
The grant is being funded through the federal Small Business Innovative Research program.
"What is happening throughout the world is that malaria as a disease is beginning to form a resistance to therapies being used against it," said Jon Gilchrist, managing director of international marketing and business development for Medical Analysis Systems.
"Walter Reed has a research project into this and Navix had been working on the technology of a strip test, so we said, 'Can we do some married research with you for the target you're looking for?' " he said. "We fit their needs, and it allowed us to develop our technologies."
The Camarillo company earlier received a $100,000 Small Business grant to formulate the concept of the test strips. The $750,000 second-phase grant, originally rejected by the Defense Department because of a lack of funding, will be used to develop the test.
"We are checking this out in Southeast Asia military field labs," said Kirti Dave, manager of the test-strip project. "This is generally a long project, but they are doing it very fast. Already there has been response from the Army about making it a readily available item."
With the help of specialized equipment, a mosquito is captured and its head or body put into an assay tube. The test strip is then inserted like a dipstick into the tube.
"The Army wants to know exactly how the disease is spreading," Dave said. "The test will have an epidemic value--telling them which kind of malaria is [growing]. There are also differences in the way they handle different kinds of malaria."
Over the last four years, Medical Analysis Systems has received five federal grants related to diagnostic development projects. Gilchrist hopes the success of the company, with 120 employees, will spur other small Ventura County firms to seek similar funding.
The grants, Gilchrist said, allow small companies an opportunity to get into risky lines of research and product development they could not afford otherwise.
Medical Analysis Systems projects include research into DNA amplification technology, to simplify DNA testing.
"Some people say, 'Why don't you just get the money from a banker or a venture capitalist?' " Gilchrist said. "But if you have a nascent technology, you are going to have 10 to 15 years before you get a product. Venture capitalists are looking to see a profit in three years or less or they're out of there."
Gilchrist has been working with Bob Cooper, executive director of the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County, to create a local biotech cluster to seek such grants.
"We've gotten . . . with Amgen, BioSource, Meissner Filtration, to discuss ways we can get together for grant funding or joint ventures," Gilchrist said.
Combined, he said, Ventura County's biotech firms could provide a greater boost to the local economy than they do separately.
"We've lost a tremendous
number of defense jobs and jobs associated with aerospace, but we feel, as Navix has shown, that we have cutting-edge research here," he said. "If given the proper help, we can coalesce with other companies in the area and create spinoffs and product lines that grow jobs in this area and develop a tax base that will help the economy."