Genetically engineered mosquitoes added to the fight against dengue and chikungunya

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153665_8594Dengue and chikungunya are both viruses spread by a species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti. Dengue sickens 50 million people worldwide and chikungunya infected about one million people in the Caribbean last year, as well as in Virginia, Florida and Puerto Rico. Insecticides are used to kill these mosquitos, but the mosquitos have developed resistance to many of those used.

Similar to the work done by researchers in London who developed a technique to control malaria, involving manipulating the genes carried by the male Anopheles mosquito, resulting in a sire who can only father male offspring (male mosquitoes don t bite and don t transmit diseases), Oxford University researchers who launched British biotech firm, Oxitec, developed a technique to use genetic engineering to fight dengue and chikungunya. Researchers patented a method of breeding Aedes aegypti with fragments of proteins from the herpes simplex virus and E. coli bacteria as well as genes from coral and cabbage. The researchers then remove the female mosquitoes since the females mosquitos are the only ones that bite humans and then release the males. The males are then released into the wild and breed with wild females whose offspring will die due to the genetic manipulation. Oxitec is aiming to release these mosquitos into the wild this spring in Key Haven, FL.

Although these mosquitoes have not yet been released in the US, Oxitec has used these mosquitos in other countries about 70 million of them and has observed no negative health effects in humans who were bitten by them. However, Guy Reeves, a molecular geneticist at Germany s Max Planck Institute says, Oxitec should still do more to show that the synthetic DNA causes no harm when transferred into humans by its mosquitos. To build trust in any cutting-edge science, a range of independent experts not just the company that stands to gain or the regulatory agency involved should have enough access to data published in peer-reviewed journals to be able to explain the scientific benefits and risks.

He adds that we do need more solutions to mosquito-borne diseases and that genetically modified mosquitoes might be a productive avenue. Should independent researchers come to the same conclusion as those researchers at Oxitec, the next step will be to deal with the anti-GMO activists who may try to get in the way of this potentially life-saving technology.

When we covered the story on Chikungunya last year, ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava hypothesized that, perhaps a system like this [the genetically engineered mosquito developed to fight malaria] would also work for the species that carry the chikungunya virus. It appears that she was spot on, as long as the independent research is conducted and the anti-GMO activists stay out of the way.