Genetically-modified mosquitoes being developed at South Kensington’s Imperial College could save millions of lives by eradicating malaria-carrying insects.
The House of Lords recently launched an inquiry into the value of GM insects, including the mosquitoes that the world famous science college is developing.
The Imperial College effort, hoped to help curb up to a half a million malaria deaths every year, is just one of the opportunities provided by this emerging area of bioscience.
“Malaria kills more than a third of a million people a year,” said Professor Austin Burt, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at Imperial College.
“Consequently, a new approach is needed to eliminate malaria. Conventional tools are not enough.
“Once we have an enzyme for mozzies, there’s an effort to eliminate malaria over the next 20 years and these genetic approaches could certainly contribute to eliminating malaria.”
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is asking professionals and the public to share their insight into potential benefits of GM insects for public health and agriculture by mid-September.
“A group of us are trying to create genetic approaches to stop transmission of malaria,” said Professor Burt.
“We aim to make enzymes that interfere with the parts of mosquitos’ DNA that enable reproduction, and thereby stop it – eliminate them.”
The research department say that the biggest applications for public health their research could lead to would be combating the mosquitoes that transmit malaria and dengue fever.
“Dengue and malaria are two of the biggest,” Professor Burt said. “We want to see how we go with those, see if the approach is useful. It’s sufficiently early days.”
There are around 3,500 species of mosquito worldwide and about 800 species in Africa.
Professor Burt and his team, whose research began 10 years ago, ideally want to eradicate the two to three species that transmit malaria.
According to Professor Burt, sophisticated genetic-type approaches to controlling mosquitoes have been in development since the 1950s.
In those times, conventional biological control was used against many insects.
In the sterile-male method, lots of insects from a species were raised in the lab, the males and females separated and the males irradiated to make them sterile.
Swamping the insect population with infertile males would then drastically cut mating and reduce the population.
This approach hasn’t worked with mosquitoes as irradiation cripples the fragile males, but it has been very successful with species with larger populations.
The screwworm, which attacks cattle and can ultimately cause death, has been effectively eliminated from the United States, Mexico and Libya using the sterile-male technique.
And sterile males were also used in California to suppress populations of medflies, an agricultural pest that voraciously eats fruit and devastates crops.
A UNICEF spokesperson described the severe impact of malaria worldwide.
They said: “Child deaths from malaria have fallen by 40 per cent since 2000, but children under five still represent 78 per cent of global malaria deaths – or 456,000 per year.
“This means over 1,200 children die every day from malaria – about 50 children every hour.”
Picture courtesy of Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel/extreme-macro.co.uk