Genetically modified mosquitoes – the cure for malaria?

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine, have recently devised a method which has the potential to aid significantly in the eradication of malaria.

This disease, if not treated immediately after contraction, can have fatal consequences. Simply one mosquito bite is sufficient. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), malaria is responsible for over 400,000 deaths per year. In addition, it has been reported that a staggering 3.2 billion people are susceptible to this disease. Despite the ostensibly grim outlook, statistics released by WHO demonstrate an encouraging trend. In the period between 2000 and 2015, rates of malaria incidences witnessed a reduction of 37 per cent around the world. Furthermore, death rates decreased by a considerable 60 per cent overall, with a 65 per cent fall in infants under the age of five.

As part of a laboratory experiment, scientists have managed to produce genetically modified mosquitoes that are unable to pass on the malaria parasite if a human is bitten. The experiment is part of a wider vision, a project named ‘gene drive’, which is seeking to drastically reduce the spread of the disease through genetic modification. This process entails the diffusion of anti-malarial genes into wild mosquito swarms.

Genetic modification is becoming increasingly prevalent in the fight against other diseases. Despite this, it remains a contentious issue within the scientific community. Due to the fact that ‘gene drive’ technology is incredibly vigorous as compared to natural genetic evolution, its full effects are not yet known. The fact that it is not a clear cut entity has given some in the scientific community cause to issue warnings about the use of this technology. The renowned academic journal, Science, stated that whilst the beneficial side of this technology must be recognised, scientists must also acknowledge the potential harms which may arise. It reported that if modified organisms were to be unleashed into the environment without proper controls it could conceivably result in “unpredictable ecological consequences”.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the outcome of this experiment must be regarded as some cause for celebration. Professor Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine, underscored the importance of this experiment: “This is a significant first step. The mosquitoes we created are not the final brand, but we know this technology allows us to efficiently create large populations.” The results have proven remarkably successful: the genetically altered mosquitoes passed on 99.5 per cent of their anti-malarial genes when they reproduced, seeming to indicate a resounding endorsement of the procedure.

Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com)

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