In The Face Of Nigerian Mosquito Nets, Westerners’ Gene Editing Offers Hope

By Odimegwu Onwumere
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In Nigeria, the utilization of mosquito nets is prevalent, while in the Western world, optimism is associated with the implementation of gene editing technology. In this article, ODIMEGWU ONWUMERE reports that malaria could soon be eradicated in Nigeria. According to US scientists, Anopheles mosquitoes have been genetically modified to resist the malaria-causing parasite by incorporating various anti-malaria molecules that target different stages of the parasite's life cycle. Nevertheless, the article highlights a lack of information on the knowledge and overall viewpoint of Nigerian scientists concerning GMMs

Despite the emotive tone of the discussion, on June 6, 2020, more than 75 civil society groups from Nigeria and other parts of Africa denounced efforts to permit the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Nigeria. Meanwhile, figures such as Bill Gates maintained that gene-editing techniques, which modify mosquito DNA, could have a crucial role in the battle against malaria and predicted that mosquito nets would soon become obsolete.

"I am extremely optimistic about the potential of gene drives," Gates stated. "It is the kind of innovation that we need to support. It could have great benefits in this context."

He stressed that the advancement of such research should not be obstructed by ethical considerations. Prior to Gates' stance, countries afflicted by malaria, such as Nigeria, which carries the heaviest burden in Africa, relied solely on mosquito nets and did not resort to using genetically modified mosquitoes (GMMs) to combat malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.

A recent study carried out by the Malaria Research Institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has revealed that Nigeria has reason to be optimistic. Scientists have discovered that mosquitoes can develop powerful immunity against the malaria parasite by eliminating a single gene. This significantly reduces the likelihood of transmitting the parasite to humans, according to the institute's website.

With the help of TDR, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, and the GeneConvene Global Collaborative, a project of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), had developed a framework for studying genetically modified mosquitoes.

“This framework outlines the best ways to ensure that the study and evaluation of genetically modified mosquitoes as instruments of public health are secure, ethical, and comprehensive,” said WHO’s data.

However, scientists have successfully demonstrated a novel genetic engineering method that can reduce the malaria-carrying mosquito population, according to experts. This notable examination was distributed in the Nature Correspondences diary in July 2021.

To carry out the investigation, lab-altered mosquitoes were introduced into a controlled environment that mimicked the conditions found in sub-Saharan Africa. It is undeniable that the Nigerian press disclosed a decline in malaria occurrence from 23% in 2018 to 22% in 2021, as per the 2021 Nigeria Malaria Indicator Survey Report. Remarkably, this was achieved by solely relying on mosquito nets.

A study published in the journal Science Advances on May 13, 2020, highlights that Anopheles mosquitoes, which have undergone genetic modification with several anti-malaria molecules targeting different stages of the malaria life cycle, demonstrate robust resistance to the malaria-causing parasite.

According to the source, the CRISPR/Cas9 mechanism, which includes DNA-altering molecules linked to bacterial protection against viruses, has been repurposed as a precise genetic engineering tool in scientific trials and for potential genetic modification approaches against diseases such as malaria. Gates addressed the gene editing concerns at the Malaria Forum conference in London and in an interview with Reuters on April 18, 2018, in London.

While acknowledging that gene editing raises "valid questions," he emphasized that research into tools like CRISPR gene editing and "gene drive" technologies should not be impeded. And he has been proven right.

Describing gene-drive technologies, the wealthy co-founder of Microsoft and philanthropist explained that they modify DNA and drive self-sustaining genetic changes through numerous generations by overriding normal biological processes. CRISPR technology empowers scientists to identify and modify or substitute almost any gene.

According to VOA News reports of May 18, 2011, it was found that children have a genetic mutation that significantly lowers their risk of contracting a severe form of malaria. Compared to children without this atypical gene, those with it have a 30% lower risk of developing cerebral malaria. The source consented that in 20 to 50 percent of cases where the brain is affected, cerebral malaria is the most severe manifestation of the parasitic disease. It is characterized by an extremely high fever, unconsciousness, and a rapid progression toward death.

Since March 8, 2018, scientists have been utilizing the new CRISPR/Cas9 framework, which allows for precise DNA editing, eliminating the FREP1 gene from the genome of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. These mosquitoes are the primary carriers of malaria to humans. The modified mosquitoes showed a significant decrease in the survival and multiplication of malaria parasites. Eric Marois, a research scientist at the University of Strasbourg, developed the CRISPR/Cas9 system used in the research.

There are individuals who contend that genetically modifying mosquitoes is an exorbitant undertaking. According to the rates disclosed in Panama, the expense would surpass $564 million each week; if the cost were $500 per million mosquitoes (similar to SIT), the cost would be $136,500 per week (over $7 million each year if the releases were constant and not reduced).

Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency authorized the dissemination of 2.4 billion genetically modified mosquitoes in California and Florida, as per Smithsonianmag. These mosquitoes, engineered by biotech company Oxitec, are male Aedes aegypti that do not bite and can only produce male offspring that are capable of reproduction, according to the firm.

As per the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, around 247 million individuals worldwide were affected by malaria, and the disease caused the deaths of almost 619,000 people in 2021. The Lancet Infectious Diseases published new research by the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), which reveals that a monoclonal antibody treatment was effective in safeguarding a small group of healthy volunteers against malaria.

Nonetheless, Nigeria has expressed its apprehensions in the worldwide battle against malaria. This was noted during the official launch of the report of the Nigeria MDG Information System (NMIS) and the National Advocacy, Communication, Strategy, and Implementation Guide in November 2022. Dr. Osagie Ehanire, the Nigerian Minister of Health, revealed that the administration, in conjunction with other development associates, has carried out three rounds of MIS so far.

Ehanire added that there have been noteworthy reductions at both the zonal and state tiers. The third MIS round was conducted in 2021, and its results are ongoing. As stated by Ehanire, "We have noticed a consistent enhancement in the adoption of primary preventive measures by the general public.

"As of the survey date, 56 percent of households possessed at least one insecticide-treated net (ITN), and 36 percent of household members, 41 percent of children under 5, and 50 percent of pregnant women slept under an ITN the previous night.

"Moreover, 31 percent of women took no less than three doses of SP/Fansidar to prevent malaria in pregnancy, while 45 percent took no less than two doses, an increase from 17 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in 2018."

This treatment was found to be safe and well-tolerated. Kirsten Lyke, MD, who is the Director of the Malaria Vaccine and Challenge Unit in the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health (CVD) at UMSOM, says that the Western study shows the potential of using monoclonal antibody therapies to prevent malarial infection.

It also holds promise for deployment in areas where the disease is endemic. Dr. Lyke further added that this development may allow for a reconsideration of malaria eradication efforts.

Dr. Pedro Alonso, the Director of the WHO Global Malaria Programme, added that in the past 20 years, the international health group has accomplished impressive outcomes utilizing the current methods of controlling malaria.

“This has prevented over 7 million fatalities and 1.5 billion instances of the illness. Despite these achievements, we have fallen short of achieving our primary objectives outlined in the global malaria strategy.

“To expedite the fight against malaria and other vector-borne diseases, genetically altered mosquitoes are among the many potential novel methods that could prove useful.”

In all the success of genetically modified mosquitoes (GMM) trials that have been impacted by scientists, who are key stakeholders; those who know better say there is a dearth of literature on the awareness and general perception of Nigerian scientists with regards to GMMs, as reported by Malaria Journal.

Odimegwu Onwumere writes from Rivers via: [email protected]