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This Could Be the End of Malaria as We Know It

Anopheles minimusAnopheles minimus
The Anopheles minimus mosquito feeding on a human hostPhotograph by James Gathany — MediaforMedical via Getty Images

A new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says that it knows how to stop malaria—but doing so opens up a Pandora’s Box of bioethical questions.

On Monday, scientists from Imperial College London announced in the journal Nature Biotechnology that they had successfully genetically modified Anopheles gambiae, the mosquito that is a major malaria vector, to carry infertile traits. The modification process uses a breakthrough technology called CRISPR, a genome editing tool.

Thanks to a scientific advancement that can make a gene more likely to be inherited, the scientists say that the infertility gene would spread across the mosquito population in a matter of years and cause the species to crash—taking malaria with it.

“The field has been trying to tackle malaria for more than 100 years. If successful, this technology has the potential to substantially reduce the transmission of malaria,” said co-author professor Andrea Crisanti from Imperial’s department of life sciences in a press release.

The Imperial study is the second in the past month to promise an end to malaria through the use of CRIPSR technology. In late November, scientists in Southern California used the technology to show how they could spread malaria resistance in a mosquito population.

CRISPR, a technology that is about four years old, has caused major upheaval in biomedical research because it can edit genes quickly and cheaply. It’s being heralded as the greatest advancement in the field since PCR, according to Nature.

But it’ll take years or decades before the solution gets out of a lab. First, scientists have to grapple with the potential repercussions of annihilating or modifying an entire species of mosquito. “It will be at least 10 more years before gene drive malaria mosquitos could be a working intervention,” Imperial professor Austin Burt said in Monday’s press release. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Burt said that he didn’t think that eradicating the species would have a huge ecological effect, since it doesn’t seem to be any animal’s sole source of food, and there are many other mosquito species.

Last week, scientists convened for an international summit in Washington, D.C. to debate the ethics of CRISPR. In the concluding statement, the organizing committee wrote that widespread use of the technology would be “irresponsible” unless there is broad consensus on the societal utility of a particular genetic alteration and safety issues have been completely addressed.