High-tech solutions are being pursued with an eye to the end game of malaria eradication
Zapping mosquitoes with lasers is just one of the high-tech innovations for malaria being investigated in Seattle, or funded by the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.
Here’s a partial list:
• Photonic fence: The laser system developed at former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures lab in Bellevue isn’t remotely ready to roll out in African villages. But it will be tested this year at a U.S. Department of Agriculture field station in Florida to see if it could protect citrus crops from a devastating pest called the Asian citrus psyllid. The lasers can be tuned to target any flying insect, based on wing beat frequency. “Chemicals are sort of the sledgehammer,” said project leader Arty Makagon. “This is a sniper rifle.”
• Gene drive: The most radical solution to malaria would introduce fast-spreading genes that interfere with reproduction and could drive mosquito populations to extinction. It’s controversial and likely irreversible. But the Gates Foundation says it may be necessary to eradicate malaria, and is funding research with a goal of releasing engineered mosquitoes by 2029 — contingent on a lot of “ifs.”
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• Infected mosquitoes: Another Gates-funded project is infecting mosquitoes with a bacterium called Wolbachia that blocks the spread of disease. The work is now focused on mosquitoes that transmit Zika and dengue viruses, but could be adapted for malaria.
• Vaccine: Last year, volunteers bared their arms to malaria-infected mosquitoes at Seattle’s Center for Infectious Disease Research to test an unusual vaccine concept. Researchers genetically neutralize the parasites that cause malaria, with the goal of using them to prime the immune system to fight off a real malaria infection. Results from the trial are expected next month.
• Diagnostics: Many people infected with malaria don’t get sick, but are walking reservoirs of the disease. A mosquito that bites them can spread the parasite to other victims. Researchers at Global Good, a collaboration between Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures, want to boost the sensitivity of rapid malaria tests a thousandfold, so carriers can be identified and treated. “To go from where we are to where we need to be, that is a true moon shot,” said Global Good leader Maurizio Vecchione.
• New drugs: University of Washington researcher Kayode Ojo contracted malaria dozens of times in his native Nigeria. Now, he’s working on a one-dose drug that will not only cure the symptoms but also clear all parasites from a patient’s blood so the disease can’t be transmitted to others via mosquito bites.
Some of the reporting for this story was conducted during a fellowship sponsored by Malaria No More, which is partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.