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Genetic engineering could hold the key to stopping the spread of mosquitoes carrying diseases like Zika and dengue.

In the fight against the spread of devastating mosquito-borne diseases, UK-based Oxitec may have found the silver bullet: genetically engineering mosquitoes to limit their own populations.

Small bite, big impact

What do you think is the deadliest animal in the world? Think smaller than a dime. It’s the mosquito. One species, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is a primary transmitter of diseases such as Zika, dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed Zika was linked to microcephaly, a devastating birth defect, as well as neurological problems like Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults. Zika has spread to over 64 countries, where mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue and yellow fever, are still a significant problem. Dengue alone infects nearly 400 million people globally per year, causing an estimated 25,000 deaths.

To make matters worse, these mosquitoes have become resistant to common insecticides. Current control methods such as pesticides and breeding site reductions are ineffective in thwarting the mosquito… but Oxitec is changing the game.

Biting back

Oxitec, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Intrexon, created a safe, effective and eco-friendly technology — genetically engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. They’ve been dubbed Friendly™ Aedes because the released males are non-biting and unable to carry and spread disease. They have one job — to mate with wild Aedes aegypti females and pass on a self-limiting gene that prevents offspring from living to adulthood. An additional marker engineered into their DNA allows the Oxitec mosquito and their offspring to be monitored and tracked so deployment can be dynamically adjusted.

Unparalleled effectiveness

The company’s technology has proven to be successful. Over 90 percent suppression has been achieved in five trials worldwide, conducted in partnership with third-party organizations in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands.

To facilitate expanded control programs in Brazil, the company has opened a new facility capable of producing 60 million Friendly™ Aedes male mosquitoes per week, able to scale the solution from the smallest villages to the largest cities.

Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine announced the release of these self-limiting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes posed no significant negative impact on human health or the environment. The National Institute of Public Health and Environment in the Netherlands also recently concluded in their technical evaluation that a vector control program using Friendly™ Aedes mosquitoes would “pose negligible risks to human health and the environment.”

Additionally, the World Health Organization has recommended the technology for pilot deployment, and the Pan American Health Organization has offered to provide technical support for countries that want to implement these projects.

“Over 725,000 people per year die from consequences of a mosquito bite,” said Lt. Gen. (ret.) Thomas Bostick, SVP of the Environment Sector at Intrexon. “When you put that into perspective, this little creature has killed more people than the total number of U.S. soldiers who died in both WWI and WWII combined.”

Current vector control methods are inadequate in the fight against the mosquito. Oxitec’s Friendly™ Aedes technology represents a significant advance in the fight against the mosquito and addresses key environmental concerns associated with current technologies.

Dash Lunde, [email protected]

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