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.
Target Malaria is attending the UN Biodiversity conference this week. We are excited about this oppportunity to meet so many groups involved in conservation and sustainability work, but we’re also very concerned by a push to see a ban on gene drive adopted here. Bans cannot help us make informed decisions – it is so early still in the research process, so of course we don’t have all the answers. Does it mean we should stop everything? No.
I had the chance to speak at the annual Grand Challenges meeting in London. It was an incredible opportunity to share my personal experience of malaria and why the work we do is so important. Malaria is one of the deadliest parasitic diseases. It has killed millions of people, but I am a fortunate survivor. When you look at the statistics of malaria, the numbers are speaking for themselves. 200 million cases of which 400 000 dying every year. These numbers give you a notion of scale, but more than numbers they speak to our consciousness, as these 400 000 deaths are linked to tremendous emotional suffering.
Bednets and IRS have done an incredible job by cutting down the death toll of the disease to less than 400 000 per year. This has brought a smile to many faces, but the question is — for how long? We are facing mounting challenges. Insecticide resistance is growing fast, big and noxious, making it clear that unless new tools are found to complement existing ones, we may never cross the last mile of malaria elimination.
But we could be getting closer to eliminating malaria with new emerging technologies being a part of the solution. I believe the work we’re doing through Target Malaria can help achieve a world free of malaria in my lifetime. I know it seems ambitious, but just as I told the people at Grand Challenges, we’ve been ambitious before: we are now thinking of settling on Mars and we’ve been doing space missions for about 50 years. Why should we not be as ambitious about a disease that affects millions of people every year, just on our door step?
It was great to see our work and that of other teams doing ground breaking research — like Eliminate Dengue — recognised in London and I am now back in Burkina working with my team with ever more determination!
Last week the team joined an exciting discussion on gene drive for malaria control in Nairobi. The event was co-hosted by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and focused on how gene drive technology could be harnessed to address malaria in Africa. It was good to see leading African scientists from across the region discussing this, and focusing not only on the scientific hurdles, e.g. the dearth of home-grown technological capacity, to be overcome, but also the political-level dialogue that needs to be built to enable these types of tools to be developed. For example, there was confidence that regional bodies like the East-African Community (EAC) and COMESA are important bodies to engage. Also that lessons and cues could be learned from other sectors like agriculture, where biological pest control and plant trials and releases have already been done.
We had an excellent cross-section of experts in the room, from Gabon and Cameroon to Morocco and Tanzania, and of course Kenya. One of the key takeaways from the day was the interest of colleagues in the region for these new types of technologies, as well as some careful reflection on how gene drive would fit in with existing tools, such as bednets and drugs. The mood is best captured by one of the moderator’s remarks along these lines: “Use of genetic modification and gene-drive to control vector-borne diseases could be risky and expensive but saving lives is priceless and the greater risk is doing nothing”. We hope this is one in many similar workshops to take place in the region in the years to come.
It is good to see more thinking going into the guidance needed to do research well. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a new report last week on genome editing entitled “Genome editing: an ethical review”, which highlighted some important questions we all need to consider. From our perspective, we see this type of conversation as essential and while much of the report was about other fields than insects and vector control, we look forward to more coming from the Council in the coming months. For a good overview of the issues at stake, look at the short (or long!) version online
Target Malaria is nominated for the WIRED innovation awards – The project has been underway for over 3 years, building on over a decade of prior research. Recently our work has gotten a lot more attention and interest because of the increasing awareness of the potential of gene drives. But for the teams here, our research has been an everyday commitment since we started, even before this was part of the broader conversation on how to fight malaria. So it was very exciting to see Target Malaria shortlisted for the WIRED innovation awards, showing how much our work is relevant to real people’s lives and recognising the game changing power of this technology. The awards are meant to recognise some of the best ideas and innovations that could change our world, and that’s exactly what our work is about. Voting is open until September 30th!