Azara Blog: Sea cucumber might help in fight against malaria

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Date published: 2007/12/23

The BBC says:

Sea cucumbers could provide a potential new weapon to block transmission of the malaria parasite, a study suggests.

The slug-like creature produces a protein, lectin, which impairs development of the parasites.

An international team genetically engineered mosquitoes - which carry the malaria parasite - to produce the same protein in their gut when feeding.

The PLoS Pathogens study found the protein disrupted development of the parasites inside the insects' stomach.

Malaria causes severe illness in 500 million people worldwide each year, and kills more than one million.

It is estimated that 40% of the world's population are at risk of the disease.

To stimulate the mosquitoes to produce lectin, the researchers fused part of the gene from the sea cucumber which produces the protein with a gene from the insect.

The results showed that the technique was effective against several of the parasites which cause malaria.
Researcher Professor Bob Sinden, from Imperial College London, said: "These results are very promising and show that genetically engineering mosquitoes in this way has a clear impact on the parasites' ability to multiply inside the mosquito host."

However, he said much more work still had to be done before the technique could be used to curb the spread of malaria.

"Although the sea cucumber protein significantly reduced the number of parasites in mosquitoes, it did not totally remove them from all insects.

"At the current stage of development, the genetically modified mosquitoes would remain dangerous to humans.

"Ultimately, one aim of our field is to find a way of genetically engineering mosquitoes so that the malaria parasite cannot develop inside them."
Dr Ron Behrens, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the technique showed promise in theory - but he warned that introducing genetically modified mosquitoes could be fraught with practical difficulties.

"You would have to get the modified version to become the predominant species, and that has never been done in any setting before," he said.

Behrens nails the first problem on the head. How do you convince other mosquitoes to mate with these mosquitoes in a big way? Well you could produce zillions of these new mosquitoes, and so try to overwhelm existing mosquitoes numerically. But that does not seem very practical. Or you could make these new mosquitoes very sexually attractive, somehow. And even when you have solved that problem, you still have to convince the world that releasing these new mosquitoes will not cause some unforseen negative side effect. It will be interesting to see what the so-called environmentalists say. They spent a lot of time and effort (successfully) demonising this kind of technology when it came to food (and no time or effort trying to do anything positive). So will they try demonisation again when it comes to disease, especially a disease of the poor? (And the so-called environmentalists always claim they care about the poor of the world, and indeed one of their many dubious claims against GM food was that it was allegedly not sufficiently beneficial to the poor.)

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