Target Malaria - The Potential of Genetic Engineering
Our first academic event of the year!
Target Malaria is a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation researching the use of gene drive to reduce the transmission of malaria. Despite being preventable and treatable, malaria is estimated to have caused over 400,000 deaths in 2015. Genetic traits such as malaria resistance, female infertility or an inability to find a blood source can be edited into mosquito’s genomes and spread quickly. Delphine Thizy will represent Target Malaria and explain more about this approach and its challenges, as well as other methods used to fight malaria and their effectiveness. The presentation will be followed by an open discussion where you can raise questions and express your thoughts.
A review by Phoebe Marson Smith
ON THE 23RD OCTOBER, the Life Sciences Society hosted their first talk with guest speaker Delphine Thizy who represented the organisation Target Malaria. Target Malaria is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its aim is to use the gene drive phenomenon to control malaria.
Malaria is a serious issue for Africa, where around 90% of the cases occur. More than 200 million infections and half million deaths occur each year1. The biggest group affected is infants and children. Not only does malaria affect the general health of the population, but it greatly affects the economy. The economic losses for Africa due to the effects of malaria is estimated at ~$12 billion a year.
Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium. Three species are found in Africa, Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium ovale and Plasmodium malariae, with Plasmodium falciparum being the most common. These parasites are transmitted mainly by three species of mosquito An. gambiae, An. coluzzi, and An. arabiensis . These species make up less than 0.1% of the species of mosquito and of these species only the female mosquitoes bite and transmit the parasite.
Current interventions are good but not enough. They consist of insectide nets, indoor residual spraying and artemisinin-based combined treatments. $5.1 billion a year is spent on malaria control, far much more than is available. The aim of Target Malaria is to create cost effective and sustainable vector control methods. If this does not happen, malaria will still be present in 2030 at an immense cost to the African continent.
Delphine Thizy mentioned that the new innovations in development are not enough to completely eradicate malaria by 2030. Even drugs that provide single dose radical cure would be unable to eliminate malaria from higher intensity regions.
Target Malaria’s aim is resolve this issue. The organisation contains a variety of people, from protein engineers to community engagement advisers, who work in Africa, Europe and North America.
Gene drive is the favourable inheritance of a gene or set of genes. One proposition of it is to insert genes that cause the resistance to the Plasmodium pathogen. The genes are inserted into both chromosomes of the mosquito so that the driving genes are always inherited.
Another method is the removal of the chromosome that determines the sex of the mosquito. Allowing only male mosquitos to form.
Target Malaria’s goal is to increase the male bias in the population and decrease female fertility. Sterile males and self-limiting less fertile females have been developed. However, self-sustaining genetically modified mosquitos are still in the developmental stage.
Now that the science is almost there the organisation needs to look at the regulatory aspect. The difficulty is that not all countries have regulatory frameworks for genetically modified species. The organisation must work in under various regulators, which have support from the African Biosafety Network of Expertise.
Often with diseases like malaria, those who have an influence on the research are not in contact with those who will be affected by it. There is also the complication of the different levels of patronage, from a local to international level. Target Malaria aims to engage the beneficiaries, to educate the stakeholders and to be transparent about the risks and benefits of their work.
The organisation values the analysis of risk and the engagement with stakeholders highly. Not only does it have teams working on plausible hazards but it also takes into account the concerns of their stakeholders, even if the concerns have no plausibility.
Finally, Delphine Thizy ended the talk on the fact that the project is committed to being open and accountable for their work. The importance of this is immense. When working on a project that will have a vast effect on the population, environment and economy of entirety Africa, transparency and public engagement is a must. Science is often seen as restricted to scientists, but as our world is shaped so drastically by science, surely everyone should have a say in how it is done?
The first LSS talk was certainly eye-opening. It revealed how the application of science can have a life-changing and far-reaching affect. Whilst lectures can teach us a lot, it’s interesting to see how all the theory we learn can be put into practice. If you are curious about more academic events hosted by LSS find us on Facebook!
 Target Malaria 2017
 NHS UK 2017
 Ledford, H. and Callaway, E. (2015). 'Gene drive' mosquitoes engineered to fight malaria. Nature.