Now that Humans can play God…

When I was at a recent conference, I was shocked by the number of technologists there who were ready to pull a “gene drive” out of our new bag of genetic tricks—and, send it toward mosquitoes…

Although malaria is one of the worst health problems facing the world, the idea of offering up a genetic fix is scary to me because it is usually permanent.

The idea being put forward is to genetically engineer mosquitoes within a specific malaria-bearing species so that their offspring can only be male. They would then release them into the wild.

Mosquito life cycles aren’t long, especially for males, usually only living about two weeks.

The theory is that soon no female mosquitoes would be born.  The species would die out and malaria would no longer be a scourge on the Earth.

But the biomass of mosquitoes is significant. And they serve a role in the food chain both for fish and birds. Destruction of several entire species could have, at best, unintended consequences.  Not to mention the possibility that the malaria parasite could find a vector other than mosquitoes.

Anopheles Mosquito

Credit: CDC/James Gathany The Anopheles mosquito carries the common form of malaria parasite known as Plasmodium Vivax. Only the female of the species bites humans.

So, I was heartened to learn that researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are making significant progress towards a malaria vaccine — a goal that has stymied scientists for decades.

The Army is working on a vaccine to stop Plasmodium vivax, the name given the most common of the five different malaria parasites carried by mosquitoes. P. vivax has a significant dormant stage in the human liver– one of several reasons it has been difficult to attack.

In a recent article in the journal PLOS, Army researchers published results from a Phase 1/2a trial of a vaccine against the P. vivax parasite in 30 volunteers. It was controversial at best…

It’s the first test of a vaccine for P. vivax to use people as test subjects.

Although the vaccine had few side effects and produced significant responses in the subjects’ immune systems, it did not prevent malaria. It did, however, delay the development of the parasite significantly in about 60% of the volunteers.

As a sidelight, the study also showed for the first time that when the subjects were treated for their malaria with the only FDA-approved drug we have — primaquine —their individual genetics greatly altered their responses.

Meanwhile, the Army isn’t giving up. Researchers at Walter Reed think they found clues in this study that will enable them to create a more effective second-generation vaccine.

Here’s hoping they are correct. Because a vaccine still looks like a far better alternative than permanently changing Mother Nature.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on those rich, smart technologists who are itching to stop malaria as soon as possible.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
For, The Daily Reckoning

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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