In America, getting a mosquito bite is almost always nothing more than a nuisance. However, in places like Africa, Asia, and South America, it can be a death sentence. The tiny blood-sucking insects are carriers for a host of deadly diseases including malaria, Zika, and dengue. Since it is extremely hard to control mosquito populations, these diseases often spread rapidly throughout communities and even in remote areas.
Now, scientists are trying a new approach to stopping the spread of dengue fever—by treating the mosquitos. Yes, you read that correctly. Scientists from the Australian national science agency CSIRO and the University of San Diego are genetically modifying mosquitos to make them resistant to the virus. In doing so, they are no longer able to spread it to human hosts.
You wouldn’t normally think that treating a pest is the best way to get rid of it. However, when it comes to battling serious conditions like dengue, scientists are willing to try just about anything. The virus leaves its victims with a severe fever, a rash, and extreme pain. In many cases, it leads to death.
So, the team of researchers decided to take an unconventional approach to try and stop the mosquito-based spread of dengue. Using genetic modification, they altered the DNA of female Aedes aegypti mosquitos. The team gave them an antibody against the dengue virus, making them immune against it.
Professor Omar S. Akbari, a co-author of the study, said in a statement, “Once the female mosquito takes in [infected] blood, the antibody is activated and expressed.”
He goes on to say, “The antibody is able to hinder the replication of the virus and prevent its dissemination throughout the mosquito, which then prevents its transmission to humans.”
According to the study, more than 390 million dengue infections are documented each year. The researchers predict that releasing dengue-resistant mosquitos into the wild could help shield the more than 50 percent of people who are at risk for contracting the disease. Their research is published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.
Massive Life-Saving Potential
Considering the impressive results of the study, the team has set its sights on even brighter possibilities. They believe that the method of genetically modifying mosquitos against diseases could be effective with other viruses besides dengue.
Akbari says, “We are already in the early stages of testing methods to simultaneously neutralize mosquitoes against dengue and a suite of other viruses such as Zika, yellow fever and chikungunya.”
The potential to stop the spread of these diseases via mosquitos is massive. It would save millions of lives every year and decrease the fear of the blood-sucking pests. Of course, before the team can release their gene-edited insects into the wild, they will need approval from regulators. That shouldn’t be a problem considering the impressive results and few downsides.
Although genetically modifying humans continues to be a hot ethical debate, innovations like this one demonstrate the implications of the technology. As techniques continue to get better, more breakthroughs will emerge that will help improve the lives of people around the globe.