The Cayman Islands’ MRCU (Mosquito Research and Control Unit) has given British firm Oxitec permission to release its genetically engineered mosquitoes on Grand Cayman island, in an attempt to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Aedes is the the vector species for dengue, chikungunya and most alarmingly, Zika.
Oxitec’s specially designed mosquitos produce offspring which die young, cutting the likelihood of transmission for mosquito borne diseases. The spread of the Zika virus means that new ways to address insect born pandemics are becoming increasingly urgent. Randomised trials have produced successful results, with the population of the targeted mosquito dropping by as much as 90%. Significantly, the WHO recommended the use of OX513A (Oxitec’s transgenic version of the Aedes aegypti) accompanied by “rigorous independent monitoring and evaluation”.
Brazil’s health agency, Anvisa, has also granted a temporary license to carry out releases in response to the Zika onslaught. Matthew Warren, of Oxitec, told the Futures Centre that a production facility under development in Brazil will allow the program to cover a population of 300,000 people.
Mosquito populations have been ballooning because of human population growth and the expansion of hospitable ecosystems due to climate change. Well-known diseases such as malaria and dengue, and new viruses such as Zika are likely to become increasingly problematic if these trends continue.
Using genetic modification as a way of targeting the vectors of these diseases could rapidly and precisely attack the speed at which these viruses spread. Oxitec says it has seen up to 90% drops of the targeted Mosquito population in field trials.
However synthetic biology is a controversial new technology – and wide release of such engineered lifeforms into the wild is an unprecedented – and potentially irreversible – step. So while these developments could provide important tools in battling disease, they also raise concerns that changing the ecosystem in this way could have unforeseen and negative consequences.
Image credit: John Tann
OXITEC press release (May 5th 2016) Grand Cayman will use Oxitec solution to suppress wild Aedes aegypti, the dangerous mosquito that spreads dengue, Zika and chikungunya, in an effort to help eliminate these diseases