According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malaria will strike more than 200 million people this year and will kill nearly half a million of them. Although there are prevention programs such as the J.C. Flowers & Co.’s NetForLife initiative, Buy-a-Net, and others, there are some parts of the world – sub-Saharan Africa, in particular – where medicines are often unobtainable. To make things worse, parasites that cause malaria are becoming more and more resistant to existing drugs.
Luckily, two teams of biologists from the University of California have created a fresh breed of mosquitoes that they hope will assist in eradicating malaria from the world. The teams recently reported that they have found an alleged gene drive to efficiently provide mosquitoes with genes that should make them immune to the malaria parasite – and the inability to spread the disease.
Behind a set of five protective doors in a basement on the Irvine campus, the mosquitos have been engineered to carry two effective genetic modifications by using gene-editing, a genetic engineering technique where DNA can be inserted, replaced or removed from a genome, on a species called Anopheles stephensi. By producing malaria-blocking antibodies that are passed on to 99.5% of offspring, the team was able to create mosquitoes (after inserting DNA into the germ line) with genes that prevent malaria transmission.
Because malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by the plasmodium parasite transmitted to people through the bites of infected female mosquitoes, the team’s goal is to release genetically modified mosquitoes to mate with wild mosquitoes. As their malaria-blocking genes enter the gene pool, it will eventually overrun the population and moderate the species’ ability to infect people.
“It can spread through a population with great efficiency, increasing from 1 percent to more than 99 percent in 10 generations, or about one season for mosquitoes,” said Valentino Gantz, biologist at University of California-San Diego.
On its own, this strategy won’t get rid of malaria, but if successfully applied in the wild, the method could help eradicate the disease, at least in some parts of the world.
“But in conjunction with treatment and preventive drugs, future vaccines, mosquito-blocking bed nets, and eradication of mosquito-breeding sites, it could play a major role in sustaining the elimination of malaria,” University of California-Irvine molecular biologist Anthony James said.