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Gates Funds Engineered Malaria Mosquito Pilot Test

Malaria clinic

Malaria clinic in Mali (USAID.gov)

14 Apr. 2022. A developer of genetically altered insects designed to destroy disease-spreading colonies is set to begin pilot tests of its anti-malarial mosquito line. The validation tests by Oxitec Ltd. in Oxford, U.K., are funded by an $18 million award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that funded the company’s earlier work with anti-malarial mosquitoes.

Oxitec modifies the genomes of insects to head off outbreaks of diseases spread by targeted species. The company uses genetic engineering techniques to insert a gene in males of the species that when released into the wild mate with females, produce non-biting offspring that die before becoming adults, and thus are prevented from having further offspring. As a result, populations of targeted insects are sharply reduced or eliminated in areas where the engineered insects are released.

For this project, Oxitec is altering mosquito species responsible for spreading malaria. According to World Health Organization, malaria affected some 241 million people in 2020, with half of the world’s population at risk for contracting the disease, particularly in developing countries. WHO estimates 627,000 people died from malaria in 2020, of which at least 95 percent occurred in Africa. Children under the age of five years are particularly susceptible to the disease. Malaria is caused by infections from the Plasmodium parasite transmitted by mosquitoes. In humans, the parasite multiplies in the liver, then infects red blood cells. Symptoms, including headache, fever, and vomiting, occur 10 to 15 days following transmission from a mosquito bite.

Oxitec’s anti-malarial mosquitoes target two species, Anopheles stephensi and Anopheles albimanus. Anopheles stephensi is the leading malaria spreader in South Asia and the Middle East, and beginning in 2012 spread to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. By 2018, malaria affected 10 percent of Djibouti’s population, an indicator Anopheles stephensi’s ability to spread in urban areas.

Partnering with regional experts and communities

Anopheles albimanus is a leading malaria vector in Central and South America, where it threatens regional progress against the disease. Both species, says Oxitec, are resistant to insecticides and bite easily outdoors, making indoor physical barriers like bed nets less effective.

The company says it began development of its anti-malarial mosquito four years ago, enlisting a team from 10 countries, supported in part by Gates Foundation funds. The project’s next phase aims to pilot test the two malaria-fighting mosquito species, partnering with regional experts and communities. At the same time, says Oxitec, the company will advance its production, distribution, and deployment practices for the test mosquitoes. The pilot tests are expected to take about three years, supported by $18 million from the Gates Foundation, but locations are not yet determined.

“This investment in the expansion of our malaria program,” says Oxitec CEO Gary Frandsen in a company statement, “will allow us to build the partnerships, systems, and programs necessary to pilot our technologies where they’re needed the most, taking them one step closer to delivering impact on lives and livelihoods.”

Building local partnerships is a key requirement for these studies. As reported by Science & Enterprise, Oxitec’s field test of engineered mosquitoes to combat Zika and other tropical diseases in the Florida Keys, approved in Aug. 2020, took much more time than the company expected, in part from local resistance to the use of genetically engineered species.

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