Today malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in Africa. While the number of people affected by malaria has been reduced, the disease has not been eliminated. There were still 198 million cases in 2013 alone! What if the continent, the whole world could be free from malaria for good? A study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation states that this goal could be attain in one generation, 25 years, but it will have to be global effort with more involvement from developing countries.
The last 2 decades had been extraordinary in terms of the fight against malaria. Efforts are still to be made though, demanding various and new creative approaches with anti-malaria technology as well as subsequent financial resources. The eradication of malaria is worth all the efforts and history showed that once eradicated from an area, it rarely returns.
To achieve elimination, the mid-term goal might be to see the number of infected in 2015 (600 million) to decrease by half in 5 years. With developing countries investing much more resources on the fight against malaria, the old dynamic where international donors were the mainly source of financing is being replaced by a real collaboration. In that regards, the Gates foundation believes this could be “the best investments that humankind can make”.
Current control methods face important challenges due to mosquito’s and malaria parasite’s resistance to insecticides and available drugs. Researchers are looking at many different strategies and new tools. In that innovation effort, vector control technology is being developed to insure a successful outcome to this global campaign to end Malaria.
This week, Nature Biotech published an article co-written by several researchers including Austin Burt and Tony Nolan of Imperial College London, presenting the most recent advancement on a potential new vector control technology through genetics. For the first time, malaria mosquitoes have been modified to be infertile and pass on the trait rapidly – raising the possibility of reducing the spread of disease.
This team of researchers led by Imperial College London has genetically modified Anopheles gambiae (which is the major carrier of malaria parasites in sub-Saharan Africa) so that they carry a modified gene disrupting egg production in female mosquitoes. They used a technology called ‘gene drive’ to ensure the gene is passed down at an accelerated rate to offspring, spreading the gene through a population over time. Within a few years, the spread could drastically reduce or eliminate local populations of the malaria-carrying mosquito species.
Their findings represent an important step forward in the ability to develop novel methods of vector control. “As with any new technology, there are many more steps we will go through to test and ensure the safety of the approach we are pursuing. It will be at least 10 more years before gene drive malaria mosquitos could be a working intervention,” added Professor Austin Burt from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences.
Many current measures to control malaria rely on reducing populations of malaria mosquitoes, such as insecticides and bed nets. These have proven very successful in reducing the spread of malaria, however these approaches face important costs and distribution challenges, as well as growing issues of resistance. A control measure relying on genetic spread through a targeted population of malaria mosquitoes could complement these interventions without adding dramatically to the health budget of resource-constrained countries.