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Researchers develop ‘mosquito birth control’ that could help fight human disease

The new method could stop the spread of disease without harming other bugs

Photo (c) frank600 - Getty Images
For many consumers, the summer months are filled with scratching bumpy, red mosquito bites.

While annoying -- and itchy -- mosquito bites can also carry diseases. According to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Arizona, over 500 million people around the globe are affected by mosquito-transmitted diseases, including West Nile Virus, malaria, Zika, and Dengue Fever.

To help combat this troublesome issue, researchers discovered a protein in mosquitoes that is responsible for creating new eggs. When it’s blocked, the result is very similar to the way human birth control works for women.

Over time, the researchers believe this method can be environmentally friendly, while also protecting populations that are plagued by mosquito-transmitted diseases.

Testing DNA

The researchers began by break down mosquitoes’ DNA in order to discover genes that were unique to the insects. The group identified 40 potential genes to target and tested each one individually by injecting RNA interference molecules into female mosquitoes before their first blood meal.

“We specifically looked for genes that were unique to mosquitoes and then tested for their functional role in eggshell synthesis,” said lead researcher Jun Isoe.

If successful, the injection would work to suppress the protein, and ultimately serve as mosquito birth control. The insects would no longer be able to properly create new eggs and reproduce, which would benefit regions where diseases transmitted by mosquitoes are particularly high.

One protein was found to get the job done -- the Eggshell Organizing Factor 1 (EOF-1). When targeted, the mosquitoes were unable to produce any healthy offspring, as any remaining embryos were killed and new eggs couldn’t be formed.

The researchers were also pleased to find out that the injection lasted long-term. The effects from the initial injection lasted for the entirety of the mosquitoes’ two to three-week lifespans, which researcher Roger Miesfeld called a “very attractive target for drugs.”

“We think this strategy may have a much lower chance of harming other organisms than what is being used today,” Miesfeld said. “Since the days of DDT, we have known that mosquito population control works to reduce the incidence of human disease. This could be a next-generation tool that could be applied to bed nets and other areas frequented by mosquitoes.”

Another added bonus was that this new method wouldn’t harm any other insects, like many chemicals often do. It would go right to the source -- hitting the mosquito population and reducing the number of infected humans.

Fighting disease

In another recent attempt to keep consumers’ safe from disease-carrying mosquitoes, researchers developed a unique vaccine at the end of last year that would attack the malaria virus from the inside out.

The group created a transmission-blocking vaccine (TBV), in which a human that received the vaccine would transfer the anti-malaria drug to the mosquito that bites them.

The vaccine wouldn’t be a cure-all and would still need to be used in combination with bed nets, insecticides, anti-parasitic drugs, and other vaccines, but the researchers were confident in the results from the early tests.

“Malaria is a global problem,” said lead author Dr. Jonathan Lovell. “This approach -- using a transmission-blocking vaccine -- could be part of a suite of tools that we use to tackle the disease.”

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