At the University of California, Irvine biologist Dr. Anthony James is working to genetically modify the DNA in mosquitoes to take away their ability to spread malaria.
According to the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, over 1 million people die each year from malaria. It is an endemic in 90 countries and though 90 percent of the recorded cases are in Africa, 40 percent of the world’s population is at risk.
In considering an addition to insecticides and vaccines as a method of fighting diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, Dr. James has turned heads towards genetics. By injecting the mosquito’s DNA with antibodies taken from mice, he has successfully created what are essentially malaria resistant mosquitos. The antibodies allow his mosquitoes to fight off the disease, therefore, they can no longer transmit the disease.
Dr. James said:
We've given the mosquito a little piece of the mouse immune system that allows them to fight off human malaria, and it worked in the mosquito as well.
With a 99 percent success rate in passing on the malaria resistant trait to larvae, James hopes this science could be part of saving millions of people affected each year by what is considered one the world’s most deadly diseases.
Though his work currently focuses on malaria, James sees this science being replicated with other mosquito-transmitted diseases, including the Zika virus. The rapidly spreading Zika virus was recently declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. It is linked to birth defects and currently has no treatment.
In both cases, both malaria and Zika, what we would expect to see would be fewer or no people getting infected, and few or no people getting sick.
But what is next?
The next step is releasing the mutated mosquitoes into the wild and then monitoring the effectiveness of introducing the resistant population to a wild population. James and his team are putting together grants and other funding to raise $30 million for a five-year project that would take on this task.
However, there are critics to experiments such as this that focus on altering the genetics of a living creature. Some argue the unknown impact this could have on the environment.
James is working to calm these fears. He explains that "these are things that come from other places, and if we have an opportunity to sort of rid our environment of them, we're actually correcting the environment.”
He is well aware that this research will not stop the malaria epidemic alone. James calls on advances in vaccines, drugs, among other sciences to help eradicate this disease.
Check out this video where Dr. Anthony James explains his research.H/T abc7, UC Irvine, Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute