It is a mild and cloudy Tuesday morning in London. The streets are busy with crowds of families and tourists queueing to enter the museums in South Kensington. Little of this is visible from a high-containment laboratory kept at 28 degrees Celsius and high humidity to mimic tropical environmental conditions. In a basement laboratory at Imperial College London a young scientist is looking at some mosquito larvae through the microscope. After having screened thousands of larvae, she finally finds what she was looking for. A tiny mosquito larva with bright, red, fluorescent eyes. She carefully collects it, and puts the precious larva in a separate tray filled with salty water. When this fluorescent mosquito will emerge as adult, it will be crossed to a wild-type mosquito and the progeny will be analysed for its ability to alter the laws of inheritance. This is an additional step in our long journey towards the generation of modified mosquito strains that could reduce the transmission of malaria. The glowing eyes are the result of a marker (a fluorescent protein, like the ones of jellyfish) we use to tag the modifications that we introduce into the mosquito genome. The fluorescence helps us to track and to distinguish the modified mosquitoes from the unmodified.
Here at Target Malaria, one of the projects researching on genetic approaches to controlling malaria vectors, we believe that co-development is an essential value of our project. The technology that we are developing needs to respond to the needs of the countries and stakeholders where we operate. For this reason, our teams are very committed to a knowledge engagement approach by which we dialogue with stakeholders to understand their concerns. This is one of the steps for us to take in order to identify potential harms that need to be further analysed for risk assessment.
Even if malaria has been eliminated in Italy almost fifty years ago, we should be aware of the persistence of this problem in many other countries. Malaria still remains one of the leading causes of death in children under 5 years old.
Considering such purpose, on the 9th and 10th of June, a ceremony for the opening of the new laboratory of Polo GGB – partner institution of Target Malaria – was held in Terni a small city in the centre of Italy.
We are very enthusiastic about the new phase of the project we are working on in Burkina Faso. It’s the first time that a modified mosquito has been imported to an African country to be reared and studied in laboratories. This is an exciting step not only for the team in Burkina Faso but for the entire research consortium as it shows hopeful progress in the research, capacity building and collaboration between our different teams.
We are quite excited about the new challenges this year brings to the Target Malaria team in Mali. We have made great progress and are enthusiastic to build further on the strong foundations we have established as a team and as an international not-for-profit research consortium. To that end, we have invested in capacity building with trainings, equipment and technology transfer to prepare us for a new exciting phase. The team is very optimistic even though a substantial amount of work is ahead of us.
Target Malaria would like to take the opportunity of World Malaria Day to bring focus on an underlying fact in the worldwide struggle against malaria: insecticide and drug resistance and the need for new vector control tools.
Thanks to the mobilization of resources and political will, malaria control and elimination efforts over the past 17 years have resulted in nearly 7 million lives saved, hundreds of millions of infections averted and over US$2 trillion added to the economies of endemic countries. However, malaria remains a deadly threat, in 2015 alone malaria caused the death of 429 000 people, of whom 70% were children under five years old.
It’s an exciting and busy year for Target Malaria in Uganda as plans to build an insectary are now finalized and the implementation has begun.
The site is being prepared and field locations are being expanded. The team is collecting base-line entomological data to help characterise local mosquito populations as well as setting up specialised physical infrastructure and conducting stakeholder engagement activities to explain the project to the local population.
The Target Malaria project has been underway for over 4 years, building on over a decade of prior research. What started as a university-based research programme is now an international not-for-profit multi-disciplinary consortium driven by a common goal: eliminating malaria by reducing malaria-carrying mosquitoes with the use of our innovative technology.
Austin Burt’s idea was started initially with only a small scientific research team working to develop his theory at Imperial College London in the laboratory of Andrea Crisanti. Since then we are proud to have grown to what is now an international team of more than 100 people in 7 countries on 3 continents.
Target Malaria teams are working at various levels with stakeholder engagement. These include international and national stakeholders, working with the local communities in which the baseline fieldwork is taking place, with the communities around the insectary, and with local and national authorities. Our teams are committed to explain the project and its phases, answer questions and address any concerns that may arise.
As we start a new year I want to take a moment to look back at some of the key milestones of the one just past. It started with a bang – another tour-de-force publication from the lab of Andrea Crisanti, this one identifying three genes in malaria-transmitting mosquitoes that match the criteria we were looking for, and demonstrating very high homing rates at all three. This was proof of principle that we can make strong gene drive constructs targeting specific genes in the mosquito. Quite rightly, the paper received a great deal of interest from both the scientific community and the media, including the BBC, International Business Times, Nature, STAT, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, India Today and The Japan Times.