Meet the Innovators: This series highlights Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovators. Throughout this series you’ll get to meet the people behind the bold innovations, as well as hear about their experience working with our community.
In 2018 Dr Frank Stadler led a research team at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, that was awarded a grant from Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge to deliver solutions for what he describes as “the supply chain management for maggot therapy in low-income countries, conflict areas, and other compromised health care settings.”
This kind of treatment is valuable in conflict-affected, or disaster settings where mass casualty response and ongoing wound care are difficult because of a lack of medical supplies and personnel, or even because hospitals may be under attack themselves. These circumstances can lead to poor hygiene, antibiotic resistant infection and, in the worst cases, the loss of limbs and lives.
As well as providing Dr Stadler with “a great vote of confidence in what my work is about” the grant helped to develop his ideas around maggot-assisted wound care and, crucially, to make maggot therapy available in compromised healthcare settings.
Photo Credit: Emma Leslie, MedMagLabs. 2021. CCBY.
From DIY solutions to full-functioning laboratories
Dr Stadler believes that isolated communities with next to no entomological or medical expertise can produce medicinal maggots at a quality that is safe for patients. “Since we received the funding we have delivered a do-it-yourself manual for the production of medicinal maggots in conflict and compromised healthcare settings,” Dr Stadler explains. “That’s a very visually appealing and easy-to-follow set of instructions on how to produce medicinal maggots, with accompanying treatment guidelines for doctors and carers to follow. This is the solution we wanted to develop for those people who are completely isolated, who have just the basics”.
“When we applied for funding I was fairly confident that we could develop that low-resource DIY solution as a finished product. But the shipping container laboratory, that’s definitely a proof of concept.”
Stadler’s shipping container laboratory (or C-Lab) is a 20-foot shipping container that has been converted into a relocatable medicinal maggot production facility. He describes it as a way of “taking the production of medicinal maggots to the point of care in a more professional, more large scale format than the DIY format can provide.” But converting a shipping container into a fully functioning lab that can be used in conflict zones as well as meet all the required standards, brings its own set of design challenges.
C Lab exterior.
Photo Credit: Frank Stadler, MedMagLabs. 2020. CCBY.
“We had to design the container so that there’s two components or two parts to it, Stadler explains. “One is the insectary where the flies are reared and the other one is whether the medicinal maggots are prepared, disinfected, sterilized, and packaged for treatments. These two sections have to be separate from each other because the fly colonies create dust and dirt. So we had to divide the container into two parts and those parts had to be on separate air conditioning systems and with separate entrances.”
The other big challenge for Dr Stadler and his team came from an entirely different type of insect: ants. “The fly colonies would be easy prey for ants, so we had to elevate the container by putting it on feet and then create a little water moat under each foot in order to keep ants out,” he explains. “It’s an old method of keeping ants away from sugar or whatever, but it worked really well for our container!”
Innovating during a pandemic
Getting to this point wasn’t easy though, like many of the innovators that HGC has worked with over the past few years, Dr Stadler and his team had to find ingenious ways of continuing their work in the middle of a global pandemic.
“When COVID began the university shut down and we had to move operations. So I took my flies home and set them up in the laundry.” Dr Stadler says with the deadpan delivery of someone who is used to adapting to unexpected circumstances. “It had to be the laundry so I could keep the flies at 25 degrees without heating the whole house! As soon as the restrictions were lifted I was able to go right back to the C-Lab and we set it up and maintained quite a few colonies from egg to adult.Our results in terms of fly egg production showed that we can produce commercial quantities of medicinal maggots in the C-Lab.”
While the container lab demonstrated proof-of-concept, it is not ready for deployment yet, but it will continue to benefit R&D as Dr Stadler explains. “It achieved its purpose and the Humanitarian Grand Challenge team have kindly allowed us to use the container for our future research. They saw that it will be beneficial for us to take over the equipment so we can continue our work with it, which is just fantastic.”
Benefits that go far beyond funding
Looking back over the past two years, Dr Stadler is able to pinpoint exactly how the Humanitarian Grand Challenge has helped progress his work. “Of course the funding was nice,” he says, “but what that funding really gave me was the opportunity to work on the project 24/7 for two years. To formulate ideas and then establish an innovative research and development programme. Through that I was able to establish myself as an expert in the field. The grant was catalyzing really for us to go into the humanitarian sector and develop some hands-on solutions.”
Stadler also talks about how working with the Humanitarian Grand Challenge created a valuable platform for his work. “There are a few researchers out there in the UK and the US who pioneered maggot therapy in its second wave in the late 80s and early 90s, and they were very complimentary about what we were doing; that somebody had opened up maggot therapy to the developing world with a DIY solution. So that was very heartwarming. Now we can take that reputation and that experience we’ve gained and turn our minds to more sustainable ways of delivering maggot therapy to low- and middle-income countries and make some money with it actually. The HGC grant empowered me to establish my own business and to work on furthering the business side of maggot therapy, because in order to do good you need to have money and support!”
Dr. Frank Stadler sits with colleagues at the first Humanitarian Grand Challenge Innovation Acceleration Week in Munich.
Photo Credit: Sebastian Widmann
Beyond the commercial opportunities, Dr Stadler is also enthusiastic about the network he has been introduced to as part of the Humanitarian Grand Challenge. “Not many people do maggot therapy, especially not in my town, so it can be a lonely business” he laughs, “I’ve really appreciated the networking, webinars, seminars, the wonderful social media posts and the pointers towards funding opportunities, and the discussions on Slack… All these things are really important and make you feel part of the community.
“I’m living in a part of the country which is not very networked, but being part of a community like this is fantastic. I recently joined the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges virtual conference and that was fantastic. Being part of that club, joining in, listening in and seeing what’s going on. That’s just brilliant!”.