Stopping the spread of malaria

The solution to fighting the disease might be in tweaking the genes of the pests that carry them.

Southern California might not seem like the malarial hotspot of the world, but through layers of secure doorways in a basement lab at the University of California, Irvine there is an innovation in genetically engineered mosquitos that could someday be a game changer for the spread of malaria. Currently, half the world’s population is at risk and 438,000 deaths occurred last year as a result of the disease.

On this week’s TechKnow, contributor Kosta Grammatis delves deep into the world of a new species of genetically engineered mosquitos specifically targeted to stop the spread of malaria in urban India. The innovator in charge of this process is University of California, Irvine’s Distinguished Professor of Microbiology, Anthony James. He and his team have been working at eradicating malaria for 20 years.

Professor James said, “this is supposed to be for the benefit of poor people…I always say we are willing to give it away, why not.”

The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow.” It has been edited for length and clarity.

TechKnow: What exactly are you doing at your lab?

Anthony James: I’m interested in contributing to controlling diseases that are transmitted by mosquitos.  The reason is that they represent the biggest threats to human health worldwide and the two biggest examples that we have now are malaria and dengue fever. They’re transmitted by mosquitoes and traditional ways of controlling the diseases have focused on going after the mosquitoes as well as going after the organisms that actually cause the disease.

What is the concept behind your work?

There’s a simple concept of taking a mosquito that would normally be able to transmit malaria, and  (we’re) building a gene and putting that gene into a mosquito into such a way now that the mosquito can no longer transmit it.

How does that work?

One of the design features is that if we put this gene in, that it would completely eliminate the parasites (that cause malaria)…We look in the development of the parasite in the mosquito, and we ask where this parasite is. We look for ways to target our gene to that specific area.

You’re changing mosquito genes?

Well, we’re actually giving them another gene so we’re giving them one extra gene in this case or a small package of genes that do things so they have everything they have before plus something extra and that extra prevents the parasite being transmitted by the mosquitoes.

TechKnow correspondent Kosta Grammatis and Professor James in the lab.

How can you see if your genes took?

We have a microscope that has florescent capability and if they glow (red) then we know that they have our gene.

But it does other things to prevent the spread of malaria?

It does other things in the context of being able to spread itself. When we think about gene drive, you can imagine a truck and then a truck that has cargo. The gene drive component is the truck and then what the truck is carrying are our genes so we link our anti-malaria genes to the actual thing that moves the gene drive system.  

Kosta gets a closer look at the mosquitoes under a special microscope.
Florescent glowing eyes help scientists determine if a mosquito is genetically engineered or not.

So you have these special genes that make it resistant to malaria and the next question is how do you get it into the population?

That’s a gene drive. Yes

How do we make sure these antimalarial mosquitos perpetuate in the population?

We use a gene drive system to do that. We increase the probability of getting our gene in the next generation. We use the Crisper Cast 9 system for that.  That’s a system that was discovered originally in bacteria and the key components for us are the Cast 9 part which is actually an enzyme. It has the ability to cut DNA. Associated with that enzyme is a small RNA molecule which tells the enzyme where to cut so one of the remarkable features of the Crisper Cast 9 system is that not only does it cut DNA, but you can tell it exactly where to cut. That’s extremely powerful.

Laser gutted scissors?

Absolutely, and that’s a good way to describe it, very precise. What that means then for our anti-malarial genes, we can put them in the mosquito genome exactly where we want to go.

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