Scientists Just Genetically Modified a Mosquito to Be Malaria Resistant

The mosquito's system turns on the malaria bug — and the insect can pass the genetic trait on to successive generations.
November 25, 2015, 8:38pm
Photo by Jim Gathany / CDC

Doctors and scientists have spent decades trying to find a vaccine for malaria. Now some say they've had a breakthrough by genetically targeting the carrier instead of the parasite itself.

Malaria is caused by a single-celled organism that gets passed around by mosquitos, entering the human body when the mosquito bites. But this week, a team of scientists at the University of California reported that they had modified a mosquito gene to make the insect's system turn on the malaria bug — and that the mosquitos will pass that gene on to successive generations.

The technique will require further testing, but it's "a significant first step" in the battle against a tropical disease that still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, UC Irvine microbiologist Anthony James said in a statement announcing the results.

"This opens up the real promise that this technique can be adapted for eliminating malaria," James said.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a leading peer-reviewed research journal.

The scourge of the tropics for centuries, malaria has sickened more than 214 million people and killed 438,000 this year, according to World Health Organization estimates. But the number of cases has fallen by more than a third since 2000, and death rates have fallen by 60 percent.

Most of the deaths and illnesses have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, but about half the world's population lives in countries where the disease is an ongoing risk, the WHO says. More than a dozen prospective vaccines are currently being tested, but none has been approved, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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