KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Gene-drive mosquitoes are generating a lot of buzz right now. The genetically modified bugs could potentially be used to reduce populations of their malaria-carrying counterparts or make those populations unable to carry malaria at all. But there’s also much debate about the impact the new technology could have on communities being ravaged by the disease.
Dr. Hector Quemada, a principal research associate at WMU, is working to strengthen the understanding of African government and regulatory officials about the technology, so that they are equipped to develop science-based regulations.
“The continent itself is pretty inexperienced in the regulation of genetically modified organisms,” Quemada says. “Only a few countries in Africa have that kind of experience and usually that’s in the area of genetically modified crops. However, they will be among the first to be faced with decisions that relate to this technology.”
Quemada received more than $3 million in grants from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health for “regulatory capacity strengthening for gene-drive related activities.”
“Our job here at Western is to help those countries be better informed about this technology as they are working to develop their regulations and policies,” says Quemada.
The development and release of gene-drive mosquitoes in scientific labs has generated some controversy.
In order to stop the spread of malaria, scientists engineered a genetic mutation that stops female mosquitoes from being able to bite or lay eggs. The gene is linked with another genetic element—“gene drive”—that assures the gene is passed on to virtually all offspring, instead of just half, as traits are normally shared.
Researchers in Terni, Italy, are currently testing these modified insects in large containment cages. They are doing so in a high-security facility in a region where the species of mosquito being developed for use in Africa could not survive if it managed to escape the lab. Other researchers are working on other genes, including genes that make the mosquito unable to transmit the malaria-causing parasite.
While the goal is to wipe out a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, especially children in Africa, critics worry that introducing these genes could have a negative impact on insect populations down the road and potentially lead to other dangerous diseases emerging. Some are also raising concerns about Africa being used as a testing ground for this developing technology.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Quemada and his team travel to African countries to host intensive training workshops in collaboration with the African Union Development Agency. They give leaders and regulatory officials a basic understanding of the technology, educating them on the tools available to assess risks connected to it and offering case studies that they can work through for practical experience.
This year the team has already made a trip to Uganda. They plan to travel to Africa at least three times per year and are applying for more funding to conduct smaller follow-up meetings and develop e-learning tools. They will also be working with African scientists and other experts to eventually transition most of the training to them.
“We’d like to keep the ball rolling so whatever is learned and decided upon in these workshops, we can keep things moving on the regulatory side.”
The team also works with the African Union Development Agency to organize tours by government officials to countries that are already deploying mosquito-control technology, including in Colombia and Brazil.
“In Brazil especially, there are examples of genetically modified mosquitoes without gene drive that are being used in their government’s public health efforts to try to reduce the level of mosquitoes that carry Zika virus, dengue fever and other types of diseases,” says Quemada.
There are also organizations like the World Malaria Program that have infected mosquitoes with bacteria that gets passed on from generation to generation, hindering reproduction.
“These are two different approaches, but at least things that these officials can see happening are alternatives to what they may be using to control malaria mosquitoes like insecticide treatments and various medicines they may have for preventative purposes.”
While Quemada and his team help communities identify risks and issues of interest surrounding this technology, his role is not to make
“We are not allowed to work directly with the governments themselves or the regulatory agencies to help write up regulations. We see our role primarily as providing them with the information, the knowledge and the various perspectives on how they can deal with the technology.
“The details may be different, but I think the questions they’re asking are the same in terms of effect on human health, animal health and the environment,” says Quemada. “There are all kind of common questions and issues that we would have to deal with regardless of what the organism is.”
Quemada and his team are also involved in monitoring international agreements to regulate genetically modified organisms.
“This is a technology that’s being heavily regulated by international bodies like the United Nations. So, we pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in those venues, like the Convention on Biological Diversity,” says Quemada. “We just keep track of policy development and try to provide reliable information to those who consult us.”
In July, the Target Malaria project conducted a release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Burkina Faso, a country where Quemada’s team has worked to provide training in these new genetic technologies. The first-stage test—the first of its kind on the African continent—is considered a milestone that could eventually lead to the development of gene-drive applications to control malaria in the area.