Cages lined with women’s mesh and crammed with mosquitoes are hidden in a Swedish laboratory. Every day, researchers feed them beet juice laced with deadly toxins, as part of a grand scheme designed to fight malaria.
With hopes of field trials repeatedly delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers in Sweden still believe they have found the secret of a new ecological way to kill the Anopheles mosquito species that transmit malaria. .
So hopeful are they that they have founded a company with the goal of turning their discovery into a commercially viable alternative to pesticides that are currently used to kill mosquitoes, but which can also harm humans and the environment.
They are misled because the liquid contains the same molecule that makes humans infected with malaria so palatable.
“If we add this molecule to any other solution, we make that solution very palatable to mosquitoes,” says Emami, a molecular infection biologist at Stockholm University.
“Like the taste of a fresh baguette or a pizza for a hungry creature … fresh out of the oven,” he told AFP.
In December, the WHO reported 241 million cases of malaria in 2020, up from 219 million in 2019, with an estimated 627,000 deaths, 96% of which occurred in Africa. Children under the age of five accounted for about 80 percent of those deaths.
Malaria not only makes people sick, those who become infected become more attractive to mosquitoes who then transmit the parasite to more and more people.
In 2017, Emami and her fellow researchers discovered that this was due to a specific molecule, called HMBPP, released when the parasite that causes malaria attacks the body’s red blood cells.
– ‘Eat it and die’ – Opening what looks like a giant refrigerator kept at a temperature of 27 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit), Emami displays shelves of water-filled containers filled with squirming larvae and makeshift mosquito cages, which she and his team are fed daily.
By adding to beet juice, instead of human blood, “a small amount of toxins combined with the molecule, the mosquitoes eat it and die,” explained Emami, who is an associate professor at the University of Greenwich in London.
The aim is also to use “lethal compounds that are harmless, environmentally friendly and easy to obtain.”
Lech Ignatowicz, who along with Emami co-founded the company Molecular Attraction to commercialize the discovery, said the new method has the potential to dramatically change the fight against disease-spreading mosquitoes.
“The most effective way to kill mosquitoes is still to use pesticides, but we know that pesticides not only kill mosquitoes, but also other insects and other life forms,” Ignatowicz told AFP.
There is also evidence that pesticides are becoming less effective. Nearly 80 countries reported to the World Health Organization that mosquitoes exhibited resistance to at least one of the four commonly used insecticides between 2010 and 2019.
– ‘Magnification problem’: Not only is the molecule relatively cheap, Ignatowicz said another benefit is the precision with which it can attack mosquitoes.
“Even in very dense environments, the jungle or tropical environments with many insects, we can choose the ones that we want to get rid of … and leave the rest of the ecosystem alone,” Ignatowicz said.
While the team focuses on malaria, the method has the potential to be adapted in the fight to slow the spread of other diseases carried by insects or even rodents.
The next step is to start testing the method in the field.
Anders Lindstrom, a mosquito researcher at the Swedish National Veterinary Institute who is not related to the project, told AFP that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the method, but said there was much work to be done.
“The problem is always climbing. The areas that must be covered with these types of traps to achieve an effect are enormous, ”Lindstrom explained.
Either method must also be applied consistently over time, which can be difficult in poor or conflict-affected areas where malaria is common.
“You can have a pretty quick effect on reducing populations, but the moment you stop, they come back,” Lindstrom said.
Source Credit: TheGuardian
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