Could New Technology that Edits Genes Help Wipe Out Malaria?

The call for eradicating malaria continues to intensify, with the WHO estimating that 2015 saw 214 million malaria cases worldwide, with most fatalities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, a new gene-editing technology could give the drive to eradicate malaria a further push as a team of scientists has identified techniques to prevent mosquitoes from transmitting the disease. The technology, developed by researchers from London’s Imperial College, essentially entails effecting genetic changes in a common breed of mosquito that’s known to be a carrier of the deadly disease. These changes would ultimately lead to a drop in the population of the mosquito breed, thereby preventing the transmission of malaria.

Recently, a team of scientists in Southern California also altered a different mosquito breed to assess if the technique could curtail the spread of the malaria parasite. While these two projects were conducted by separate teams, what’s common to their approach is that they both used a genetic engineering technology called Crispr/Cas9. This technology is creating waves in the genetic engineering world because it makes it possible for genetics experts to precisely cut and paste genes.

Besides this, the new technology also helps scientists to develop a gene drive, a revolutionary technique via which they can create a DNA sequence that allows genetic traits to be inherited rapidly by populations.

While this technology could bring with it a revolutionary approach to eradicating various diseases, those arguing about the ethics of such a technique are still not convinced. Their concerns are centered on the fact that allowing such a step would concentrate the power to effect inheritable changes in humans and animals in the hands of a few individuals.

In the context of malaria, specifically, this technology is still reportedly about a year away from actually causing any genetic modifications to malaria-transmitting mosquitos. However, if the ethics argument does reach a consensus, the way diseases are treated will never be the same.


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