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Technology and Innovation: A Cure for Malaria?

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

This week's theme of technology and innovation has been full of wonderful ideas. Today we look at another: the fight against malaria. Forward-thinkers at the University of Arizona have gone beyond invention and product development in their quest to change the world for the better. After completing years of research, the US scientists have succeeded in genetically engineering a malaria-resistant mosquito.

Technology and Innovation: A Cure for Malaria?

Photo courtesy of Gerald Yuvallos

Mosquitoes are vector agents that carry disease-causing viruses and parasites from person to person without exhibiting symptoms themselves. The principal mode of the spread of malaria is through a mosquito bite and the insect is responsible for a staggering 250 million cases of malaria per year and 1 million deaths. Tackling the root cause of malaria’s spread through this newly developed genetic engineering innovation would be a key step in the long battle against the global killer.

How it works
The ultimate aim for the researchers at the University of Arizona is to modify and then release parasite-proof mosquitos into the environment.

•    The scientists introduced a gene that affected the insect's gut, meaning the malaria parasite could not develop and tagged the gene with a fluorescent marker to ensure it had been inserted.

•    The fluorescent tag enabled the scientists to see that the gene had been successfully "expressed" by the mosquito larvae, when the mosquitos reproduced.

•    However, for the genetic modification to be successful in the long run, the modified insects would have to "take over" from the naturally occurring, disease-spreading mosquitoes. “We have to somehow give the mosquitoes a competitive advantage over the disease-carrying insects" stated Professor Michael Riehle, a principal investigator on the project.

•    The search for this competitive advantage is well underway, but is yet to be achieved. All the while researchers are investigating a number of other genetic modifications and “tricks” to make sure their new mosquitos are the hardiest of their species.

•    Once the scientists have provided the mosquitos with a competitive edge, the complete genetically modified variety will be released into the wild, and will gradually displace the deadly variety. As a result malaria cases will plummet.
The ideas and technology, whilst ground-breaking, remain controversial. The technique will see scientists significantly meddling in the process of natural selection and could appear to some people to be ‘playing god’. However, is there a compromise to be made? Is it the case that the loss of 1 million lives a year justifies the risks and ethical objections, and in such a case utilitarian principles should be implemented in order to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. On the flip side, will genetic modification end up spiraling out of control with scientists abusing the system in a way contrary to opposing Kantian ethics condemning the treatment of the mosquito, in this case, as a means to an end. We must consider the extent of loss or gain that there is in a potentially malaria-free future.#

For more information on this and many other fascinating advancements in the world of science and technology, watch the excellent Channel 4 documentary 'Brave New World'.

By Greta Hedley-Miller

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