Fighting malaria with fungus, seaweed and suicide genes

In today’s Science magazine, American and British researchers report that infecting mosquitoes with a fungus given toxic genes may help fight malaria.

Earlier this week, another group of scientists said they think seaweed in Fiji may hold promise for developing new anti-malarial drugs.

Some are inserting “suicide genes” that curb the insects’ ability to breed, while others are directly altering the genes in mosquitoes in order to make them less able to transmit the malaria parasite.

The gene-tinkering approach is not that new, and so far not demonstrably successful. But it is very popular with scientists.

“Because mosquitoes increasingly are evolving to evade the malaria control methods currently in use, NIAID-supported scientists are testing new, innovative ways to prevent malaria that we hope can be developed into tools that will be effective for years to come,” says Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of NIAID, the branch of the NIH that supported the fungus study.

I can’t help but wonder what happens when you get bit by a bug carrying the genetically intoxicated fungus? Will we displace malaria with some new toxic fungal disease for skeeters to spread? Hmmm…

At any rate, it’s still just an approach being tried in the lab and, as NPR’s Joe Palca reports, there remain many potential pitfalls — including the possibility that the malaria parasite will become resistant to the toxic fungus just as it is so adept at doing against drugs.

Every year, about 225 million are infected with malaria worldwide (most of them children), resulting in about 800,000 deaths. Malaria can be found in more than 100 countries around the world, but most cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Preventing infection by using insecticide-treated bed nets and household spraying has been the primary strategy in developing countries, but there is evidence the mosquitoes are slowly becoming resistant to the insecticides as well.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.