Will new genetic engineering tech finally eliminate malaria?Monday February 20 2023
For years, the elimination of malaria has remained an elusive dream. Scientists have employed several technologies, but the disease is still a major killer in Africa.
In Kenya, there are an estimated 3.5 million new clinical cases and 10,700 deaths each year, according to Centres for Disease Control. The risk of contracting malaria is highest for people living in western Kenya.
However, emerging technology is giving hope that the disease that inflicts a heavy economic burden and loss could finally be eliminated.
Scientists have come up with a gene drive technology that targets mosquitoes that transmit malaria.
The idea is to use genetically engineered mosquitoes to significantly cut the population of the type that transmits malaria.
Richard Mukabana, a senior research and policy analyst at African Institute for Development Policy, says the technology which employs the principle of sending a thief to catch a thief may yet prove the most effective.
“It is only a mosquito that knows where another mosquito is and it’s easier for it to search for others and kill them through suppression,” says Prof Mukabana.
In gene drive technologies, an artificial gene is introduced into the malaria-transmitting mosquito population.
This then disrupts reproduction by either distorting sex chromosome inheritance such that most offspring are males, or by knocking out female fertility genes such that they no longer lay eggs.
Experts argue that the current technology used in fighting malaria, which comprises vector control and drug therapy has not been sufficiently adequate to eliminate the disease on the continent, hence the need to embrace new technologies.
Read: Harness innovation to ease malaria burden
This comes at a time when a deadly species of mosquito has been reported in the country. The mosquito, scientifically identified as Anopheles stephensi, was reported in Kenya’s northern counties having crossed from the Horn of Africa countries of Djibouti, Somalia, and Ethiopia.
The World Health Organisation says the species is resistant to several classes of insecticides traditionally used to treat bed nets and home environments, has the propensity to bite both indoors and outdoors, and feeds on both animal and human blood.
The new malaria control technology is still being tested in the lab. It is yet to be released in the field.
In Africa, countries that are currently trying the gene drive technology include Burkina Faso, Uganda, Tanzania, and Sao Tome & Principe.
In Kenya, the technology is still at the advocacy stage to make stakeholders understand it and make a judgment on whether it’s an option they would want to adopt.
Prof Mukabana says trials in a little cage have produced “very good results” and it is possible to crush the population of these mosquitoes.
The next phase of trials will involve confined field release on an island, and Prof Mukabana says this is the most difficult part of this research as it will depend on the willingness of the authorities to give the green light.
“The most difficult thing with this technology would be free testing. Up to this moment, no single country in Africa has allowed the free release of these biotech mosquitoes,” points out Prof Mukabana.
In Africa, new technologies are being championed by the African Union (AU), through New Partnership for Africa Development, which is tasked with finding technologies that can help steer economic growth.
Read: Vaccine a huge boost in fight against Malaria
Last year, East African Community Health Research Commission hosted a regional policy dialogue on legal and regulatory frameworks required for the proper development of genetically modified mosquitoes for malaria control and elimination in the region, and their use if proven safe and efficacious.
Another technology being tested is gene editing, which has so far been reviewed by AU and has shown big promise.
“It holds the promise of solving a lot of African problems and I think it’s going to bring about the revolution,” says Prof Mukabana.
In Africa, gene editing is in its infancy with a few labs in South Africa and Uganda. The technology, is, however, at an advanced stage in developed countries.