Research into mosquitos offers hope in fight against malaria

Ebola is in the headlines and scare stories abound. The virus is transmitted through contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person. But what transforms it into such a devastating problem are social and economic conditions – and the panic that surrounds it. And though my work-related fundraising efforts at the moment are entirely focussed on supporting colleagues through the current ebola crisis, it would be easy to forget that this is not West Africa’s biggest killer; that dubious honour goes to malaria.

Ninety per cent of all malarial related deaths occur in Africa. In 2012 malaria caused an estimated 627,000 deaths, mostly among African children. It’s one of the leading causes of death in Sierra Leone, a country where we provide services.

So I was thrilled to read recently that scientists from Imperial College London have tested a new genetic method that distorts the sex ratio of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, the main transmitters of the malaria parasite, so that the female mosquitoes that bite and pass the disease to humans are no longer produced.

In the first laboratory tests, the method created a fully fertile mosquito strain that produced 95 per cent male offspring. By inhibiting the production of female offspring, a new way of eliminating the disease is provided.

The scientists introduced the genetically modified mosquitoes to five caged wild-type mosquito populations. In four of the five cages, this eliminated the entire population within six generations, because of the lack of females. The hope is that if this could be replicated in the wild, this would ultimately cause the malaria-carrying mosquito population to crash.

Nikolai Windbichler, a lead researcher from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said: 'What is most promising about our results is that they are self-sustaining. Once modified mosquitoes are introduced, males will start to produce mainly sons, and their sons will do the same, so essentially the mosquitoes carry out the work for us.'

Although increased prevention and control measures have helped reduce global malaria mortality rates, they are limited in what they can achieve. It’s not uncommon for example to see insecticide treated nets not used as intended by donors but to protect growing crops or as fishing nets, because, as was reported here, and I also saw in Malawi recently, people believe that it is less painful to die of malaria than hunger.

The laboratory work is still in its early days, but researchers think that this new approach could ultimately lead to a cheap and effective way of eliminating malaria from entire regions. At last we may be in sight of achieving the goal of enabling people to live without the threat of this deadly disease entirely.

The vaccine will also make a big difference to the work lives of practice nurses who advise on the (often expensive) anti-malarials needed by travellers before, during and after trips abroad.

Let’s hope that a vaccine for Ebola won’t be far behind. Who knows? Perhaps the unproven treatment with serum that’s currently being tested on the two infected Americans who worked in Liberia is the beginning of that process?

About the author

Bríd Hehir is a fundraising manager for Do Good Charity, which sponsors nurse training and education in Africa. She worked in the NHS until 2011, as a nurse, midwife and specialist heath visitor, and latterly a senior manager. She is a regular contributor to spiked and is a Battle of Ideas committee member.