Massive-scale Mosquito Birth Control and the Zika Virus

via http://www.oxitec.com/test-gallery/

via http://www.oxitec.com/test-gallery/

Of all the new technology that we see, surely the most impactful is anything that helps to advance our understanding of illness and disease, and promotes global health? The mammoth industry that is biotechnology is just as lucrative, it seems, as the consumer technology market with both sectors worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In reality however, a huge amount of our understanding of health and disease comes not from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, but from research labs funded by governments.

Brazil is currently experiencing a major health scare which threatens to spread to all of the Americas. Zika virus, carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, has been tentatively linked to a rise in the birth defect, microcephaly, among new-born babies. No vaccine is currently approved to prevent infection with the virus, and so a UK-based biotech company has begun work towards stopping the spread via a more controversial means.

They are using a technique which involves injecting mosquito larvae with tiny volumes of genetically-modified DNA in the hope that it will be taken up by the larval cells and can then be multiplied through breeding this modified mosquito with others, creating a genetically modified population. The modified DNA contains a gene (a section of DNA which performs a certain function) which causes male mosquito cells to produce a toxic protein. This eventually leads to their death before adulthood and prevents them reproducing.

So… it’s basically massive-scale mosquito birth control! The hope is that by releasing huge numbers of these mosquitoes into the environment in Zika affected areas, the population of the mosquitoes that spread the virus will begin to decline and prevent infection spreading. Tests in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba have apparently shown really high success rates at cutting the numbers of the virus-carrying mosquitoes. Win for technology.

Another (brilliant) piece of news is that UK scientists at the Francis Crick Institute, based right here in London, have received permission to begin editing the genes in live human embryos. Their plan has been a subject of controversy for many years, which is understandable considering the fact that they basically want to edit the human genome. However, it paves the way for crucial research into development, which is the subject of the scientists’ research with the embryos.

To edit the genome of the embryos, researches will use a technique that has been touted a fair bit recently called CRISPR Cas9. It is a relatively new way of editing DNA to include genes which are to be studied and is cheaper and far easier than any previous way of doing this. CRISPR Cas9 genome editing was developed to work in human cells in 2013, and is subject to a huge global patent battle as several groups claim to have discovered it first.

To understand the implications that genome editing has, think that every embryo starts off as one cell. If the DNA is edited here, it will be copied to every other cell in the resulting individual. It is a valuable tool to edit the DNA of very early embryos in the lab, which is why the license was granted. However, the scientists can only keep the embryos alive for around a week before killing them, meaning that the DNA is not changed in an actual person. Some people argue that we should not allow genome editing as it may lead to people wanting to change specific genes to alter the looks or other aspects of their babies – so called ‘designer babies’.

My views are that this is an extremely positive step for science, and shows that the UK is a global leader when it comes to scientific policy. It has been proven that uses of embryo genome modification can be limited to research and people needn’t be worried about pushy parents all rushing out to buy blonde, athletic, studious kids from Harley Street.

What are your views? Good for science or bad for society? Let us know in the comments below!

This article was written by Alex Kyrtsoudis