Hackathon Garners Innovative Ideas to Address Mosquito-Borne Diseases

By Anne Wolf

A wearable air-capture device was the winning idea at a hackathon to develop new tools to monitor and control outdoor-biting mosquitoes held December 5 to 7 at UCSF’s Institute for Global Health Sciences (IGHS).

More than two dozen scientists and researchers participated in the hackathon, a joint project of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub (CZB), the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and IGHS. Working in multidisciplinary teams, participants created tools and approaches to address the problems associated with mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, zika and yellow fever. The ideas ranged from high-tech surveillance tools and community-led monitoring programs to the wearable air-capture device.

The winning entry focused on reducing CO2, which attracts mosquitoes, and applied research and materials developed to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere to envision a necklace made with activated charcoal. The charcoal absorbs CO2 when individuals exhale, potentially making it harder for mosquitoes to find them.

“We can reduce malaria infections in elimination settings by controlling biting,” Nazzy Pakpour, an entomologist at California State University East Bay, told the judges in the team’s pitch. “A portable wearable device that reduces CO2 levels when you breathe could reduce biting, which will lead to greater reduction in malaria.”

“We liked the team’s application of Bay Area innovation of carbon-capture technology to individual use,” said Joe DeRisi, co-president of CZB and a hackathon judge.

Pakpour and her teammates, Francois Rerolle and Paul Krezanoski of UCSF and Jack Kamm from CZB, won $2,500 and in-kind support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and CZB to further develop their idea. 

“Our goal was to bring together people from various disciplines to develop innovative new solutions to global health challenges,” said Colin Boyle, deputy director of IGHS. “We chose to focus on mosquitoes for this inaugural hackathon because they transmit so many different diseases around the world, and while we have tools to combat indoor-biting mosquitoes, outdoor-biting mosquitoes remain a challenge.”

Malaria alone annually kills more than 500,000, mostly children, with the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. While effective interventions, such as bed nets and indoor spraying, exist to protect people when they are indoors, people who work in the forests of Southeast Asia and farms in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as women and children who do chores and play outdoors, are at high-risk.

Hackathon participants included researchers from public health and medicine, engineering, data sciences, and the physical sciences at UCSF, CZB, CZI, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, UC Berkeley and other research organizations.

“This is the first time I have worked with people from different backgrounds, and it’s amazing what four people can do in a short period of time,” said Lucy Li, a data scientist at CZB. Her team pitched an open-source mosquito collection device that would identify species, send the information to open-source data storage and create spatiotemporal data visualizations in real time.

“Several of the teams’ innovative tools have potential, and we hope to work with them to further develop their ideas,” said Cristina Tato, associate director of the Rapid Response Team at CZB.