BEACON TRANSCRIPT – Thanks to a groundbreaking discovery made by two researchers at the Universities of California, malaria could be eradicated in some regions. Published in the journal PNAS, their study reports a new method that ensures the offspring of the engineered mosquitoes will receive a specific gene set.
It’s a well-known fact that mosquitoes are the ones spreading malaria after they’ve been infected with parasitic bacteria. However, researchers were able to genetically engineer mosquitoes that can no longer become infected as they are resistant to these parasites.
But this wasn’t enough; the second issue emerged in the form of having to spread this genetic resistance in the midst of an entire mosquito population. In order to effectively eliminate the vulnerable genes, the researchers needed something more than the conventional generational gene inheritance – which averages at merely 50 percent.
This is where UCI’s “gene drive” comes to save the day. According to the researchers, they used the controversial but extremely effective CRISPR-9 gene editing approach which allowed them to insert into the mosquito’s chromosomes two genes encoding the resistance to malaria parasite.
The results were outstanding: 99 percent of the offspring of two engineered mosquitoes had received the gene editing, ensuring they also exhibit the resistance. Next step of the study involves releasing these bugs into a wild population, where researchers are sure the resistant genes would quickly outpace the expression of the vulnerable genes.
It would take less than a year for the UCI researchers to prepare and breed a large enough starter population for field tests. However, there are plenty of hurdles – regulatory, ethical and technical to begin with – to overcome before that takes place. Anthony James, a UCI molecular biologist, said social science needs to advance so it is able to handle it.
Even though it’s perfectly curable and preventable, malaria is still a potentially deadly disease; the female Anopheles stephensi mosquito is the primary carrier of the parasite, which is transmitted through bites. According to the World Health Organization, the P. falciparum and P. vivax species cause the most deadly malaria in humans.
WHO estimates 438,000 people have died of malaria this year alone, 91 percent of which occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. Chills, fever, headaches and vomiting are among the early symptoms of the disease, which can become deadly if not treated within 24 hours.
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