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Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award winner Bart Knols’ battle

december 16, 2018

It buzzes and stings, and can make you really sick. Medical entomologist, malaria expert and entrepreneur Bart Knols knows all about it. We are talking about mosquitoes, malaria mosquitoes in particular. Knols’ work and life have revolved around the development of sustainable and practical solutions to eradicate Africa’s most notorious pathogen. On December 6, his efforts were rewarded when he won the Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award. We asked him what motivates him and of course how he plans to spend the prize money of 35,000 Euros.

  Every two minutes, a child dies of malaria

Why the malaria mosquito?

“Did you know that every second person who has ever lived died from a mosquito bite? Every two minutes, a child dies of malaria. Every year, half a million people die from this disease. Most of them are children under the age of five. Malaria has a huge impact. It is the most important health problem in Africa. Apart from this, it also happens to be a fascinating disease, particularly for someone with a background in biology, like me. The malaria mosquito was flying around during the time the dinosaurs walked the earth.”

You also got “bitten” by the Africa virus

“If you grow up in the Roman Catholic south of the Netherlands like I did, in Meerssen, it’s almost inevitable you will come in contact with Africa one way or another. As a young boy, I was fascinated by the stories about snakes and elephants that I heard from a missionary from Ghana. These stories sparked my love of nature, the curiosity about the dark continent. When I was 19, I had the opportunity to do an internship in Kenya for my biology degree. The country made a deep impression on me, and I designed my program so that I always had a reason to go back. Later on, I ended up living in Africa for a total of eleven years, three of which were in Zambia. I once drank water from the Zambezi River there. According to tradition, this means you’ve contracted the Africa virus for life.”

The fight against malaria is stagnating

“Over the last fifteen years, major successes have been achieved in the fight against malaria. Mosquito nets were distributed on a large scale, better medication became available and it was easier to diagnose malaria fast. In 2015, we noticed that the resistance to the insecticides in the mosquito nets was rising. Particularly in countries with a lot of water such as Nigeria and Congo, the disease is spreading fast again, which means that the package of measures needs renewing. This is why we are looking for innovative, sustainable alternatives. We are now working on a trapping method which doesn’t use insecticides. Winning the Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award will really help accelerate our research.”

Tell us more. What do you plan to do with the prize money?

“I want to do two things. I would like to use part of the money to finance a fellowship for two students in Tanzania. These two fellowship recipients will spend one year with my team to work on the trapping system for mosquitoes. We are developing a trap that is installed on outside of houses. Body odor is spread using a mini-fan, attracting mosquitoes. Once in the trap, the mosquitoes are infected by a fungus that kills them. Solar energy charges the fan’s electric motor during the daytime.

The fungus makes insecticides unnecessary. In other words, it’s a sustainable way to exterminate mosquitoes. The dead mosquitoes are collected in a cup, so people can see the effects of the trap, and this contributes to awareness. Our goal is to make this trap available for less than five dollars per household. This is how we can contribute to the health of society, and this is important to me.  I really enjoy having young researchers look at a problem from an entirely different angle. And helping them develop something that is useful, applicable and can easily be launched on the market. As far as that goes, I see similarities between how I work and how the people at the Brightlands campuses work. Science and entrepreneurship go together really well.”

And your second plan?

“I am going to invest the rest of the money in research that I want to do in Washington. The US National Library of Medicine has nine meters of shelves of uncultivated documentation available on how the American Fred Soper fought mosquitoes in the past. We have forgotten about much of his knowledge. I would like to know which techniques were successful in the past, and which could still work today. I think that we shouldn’t just look at the latest technology, but also that we have to start making smart use of tried and tested yet forgotten knowledge in order to arrive at an effective package of measures. I would like to incorporate whatever knowledge that I gain there in a book, Malaria, the then, the now, the end.  I am dedicating the book to Marc with whom I feel a certain kinship. Like him, I also often work under difficult circumstances. I need the patience, perseverance and optimism that helped Marc during his polar expeditions to face the challenges I encounter in the fight against malaria.” 

How else have you benefited from the Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award?

“It was amazing to be part of such an unprecedentedly impressive meeting. I think that the story told by Marc’s friend Peter Nyquist really hit home with everyone. Meeting the other nominees was also very valuable. I can act as a link for Matthijs and Sjim of The Person Behind the Patient with contacts I have at Radboud University if they want to expand to Nijmegen.

I have made an agreement with Ap Verheggen of SunGlacier Technologies that I will go with him the next time he goes to the desert. The other nominees are also working on fascinating ideas. As far as that goes, the awards ceremony was really exciting. It was everything but a foregone conclusion!”

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