Security was tight as we arrived at the Malaria Summit yesterday, unsurprisingly given that 16 Heads of Commonwealth States, HRH Prince of Wales and the Duke of York would be arriving later in the day! Malaria is a particularly pertinent issue to the Commonwealth, where 90% of the population are at risk.
Earlier this year, the Stakeholder Engagement and Communication teams from the three partner countries of Target Malaria in Africa met in Accra (Ghana) for a workshop to discuss the stakeholder engagement work that is being carried out on the ground in Burkina Faso, Mali and Uganda.
Field Entomology is a big component of Target Malaria’s work. Krystal Birungi, Field Entomology Coordinator at the Uganda Virus Research Institute tells us about the importance of gathering baseline data to get a better understanding of the Anopheles gambiae mosquito in Uganda, the primary malaria vector in the country.
The Stoddard Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA uses a combination of biochemistry, structural biology, and protein engineering to create custom-specificity enzymes which cleave genomic DNA at desired target sequences. Dr. Barry Stoddard has studied a family of proteins called meganucleases (also known as homing endonucleases) for decades, seeking to understand how they do their job and what factors affect their activity and stability.
Most mosquito species have a flight range of 1-3 miles. In November 2016, a particular strain of anopheles mosquitoes flew from London, where they were born, to Italy, where they were further analysed, to finally reach a city in West Africa called Bobo-Dioulasso, a total distance of over 5000 miles, all of which was flown at egg stage for the mosquitoes. These mosquitoes represent the first major step for scientists at Imperial College of London, in their journey as part of a bigger team and effort, towards their end goal to reduce transmission of Malaria in endemic countries such as Burkina Faso.
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.