Mosquito hanging off a leaf

Gates Foundation funds ‘living insecticide’ project to tackle malaria

Image credit: Dreamstime

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is donating millions of dollars to a project which aims to fight malaria in the Americas and other regions using genetically modified (GM) mosquitos.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by female mosquitoes, and is responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths every year in nearly 100 countries. Children are particularly vulnerable to malaria.

The philanthropic Gates Foundation has made the fight against malaria a top priority. Earlier this year, the foundation announced a $180m (£136m) initiative with the Inter-American Development Bank targeting malaria prevention in Central America. It has also thrown its support behind a major project to use a gene drive (an approach which involves spreading a specific gene quickly through a population) to kill malaria parasites in mosquitoes across Africa.

Now, the foundation will be investing $4.1m (£3.1m) in a project which uses GM mosquitoes to control their populations. It will be targeting a mosquito species – Anopheles albimanus – across the Americas, East Africa and South Africa with a GM strain of mosquitoes, which are effectively a “living insecticide”.

The foundation is entering an agreement with Oxitec Ltd, an Oxford-based biotechnology company (and subsidiary of GMO giant Intrexon) which develops GM insects to control populations. Previously, the company developed male-selecting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to reduce populations responsible for spreading dengue fever, Zika and other infectious diseases. These “friendly” GM mosquitoes are all male, and carry a self-limiting gene. When they reproduce with wild females, their offspring inherit a gene which kills the disease-spreading female mosquitoes before adulthood while the male gene carriers continue to pass on the trait for up to ten generations.

Oxitec’s friendly mosquitoes carry a fluorescent marker gene, allowing for their monitoring in the environment. Although the full impact of this type of population control is not yet understood, it is thought to be more effective and environmentally friendly than chemical insecticides, with no impact on human health.

“With the support and partnership of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxitec is entering the figh against malaria with a powerful, innovative vector control technology,” said Grey Frandsen, CEO of Oxitec, in a statement

“We’ve built a strong, proven biological engineering platform capable of developing self-limiting mosquito strains that can be used to combat specific disease-spreading species. We’re now leveraging that platform to contribute to the fight against mosquitoes that transmit malaria.”

With this new funding, Oxitec hopes to have these mosquitoes ready for field trials by 2020.

Despite a huge increase in funding for malaria research, and considerable progress having been made, the World Health Organisation warned in its 2017 World Malaria Report that progress had stalled.

“Vector control has played a critical role in reducing cases and deaths due to malaria over the past 15 years,” said Philip Welkhoff, director of the malaria program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “With further progress stalled at present, continued innovation of new and transformational interventions is critical to realising the goal of a world free of malaria.

“Successful burden reduction and elimination will require a range of technologies for different geographies and challenges. [GM] mosquitoes are showing promise in controlling other vector-borne diseases, so we look forward to exploring their use alongside complementary interventions for malaria.”

In December 2017, it emerged that Darpa was dedicating approximately $100m (£75m) to unspecified gene drive projects, leading to fear of the possible unintended – or intended – consequences of a military-backed gene drive.

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