Modified mosquitoes to eradicate malaria?

malariaResearchers claim they have managed to genetically engineer mosquitoes which can resist the malaria infection, doing it in such a way that can nearly ensure the trait will rapidly spread through a population.

Californian researchers have utilised a cutting edge new technique known as gene editing, a technique that involves precise placement of new DNA to enable specific desired effects.

The gene editing technique they used – called CRISPR – allows the new trait to quickly spread and almost guaranteeing the new gene will be transmitted to new generations, limiting the transmission of malaria to humans.

“This opens up the real promise that this technique can be adapted for eliminating malaria,” said Anthony James of the University of California Irvine, who helped lead the study.

“We know the gene works. The mosquitoes we created are not the final brand, but we know this technology allows us to efficiently create large populations.”

The new breed that the researchers looked at were genetically modified Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes – of which normal versions are a common carrier of malaria within India and the Middle East – will not be able to either carry or transmit the deadly disease.

The scientists at the University of California modified the Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes’ DNA with a “resistance” gene, placed into the ‘code’ via a common “cut and paste” gene-altering method known as CRISPR/Cas9.

The technique has previously been utilised to look at the safety of using pig organs safe for human transplants, and produce an HIV-resistant immune system.

Specifically, an analysis was conducted on the mosquitoes’ DNA to try and transmit malaria-fighting antibodies for the particular type of malaria infection that impacts humans that infects humans – Plasmodium falciparum. For the modified mosquitoes, the malarial parasite is either killed off entirely, or stopped from forming into a strain that could be deadly to humans.

The Californian study includes an optimistic future plan to emit the modified mosquitoes into the wild and then the theory is these mosquitoes would give the anti-malarial genes to their offspring, thus generating a resistance to the parasite.

Amazingly, the DNA was successfully passed on to 99.5% of the mosquitoes’ offspring in the lab; genes only have a 50% chance of being passed on usually. In addition, a tracer gene was added to the malaria-resistant one, which would make the modified mosquitoes’ eyes become a fluorescent red in colour.

With further research and development, the team of scientists at the University of California are optimistic they will be able to eventually engineer an anti-malarial mosquito population, helping to eradicate a potentially deadly disease that afflicts millions of people around the globe each year.

Don’t forget, if you are wanting to escape the wet and miserable weather in the UK currently, and are travelling to particularly at-risk countries for malaria, The NHS Malaria Fit For Travel website offers advice about antimalarials such as Malarone and includes a map to show what other serious diseases are rife in certain regions.

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