Today I take you to Burkina Faso, West Africa. Its surface is similar to Italy’s, but inhabitants are much less: 17 versus 60 million. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world (ranked 170/185 by International Monetary Fund in 2018 based on GDP per capita), and it has to face also epidemics of malaria, which is endemic in the country. Why am I talking about Burkina Faso? Because when such countries are associated to good news, I think it is worth to mention it.
Brian Lovett, from University of Maryland, in collaboration with Etienne Bilgo from Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé of Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, identified a novel, potential strategy to fight malaria spreading. Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease caused by parasites. Symptoms are fever, vomiting, tiredness, headache, and can lead to death. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2015 there were 214 million new cases of malaria, resulting in 438,000 deaths.
Because mosquitos transmit the disease, control of their population is a potential strategy to limit malaria diffusion. Most attempts in this direction involve insecticides, with limited success because mosquitos can become insecticide-resistant. In addition, the poisonous fungus Metarhizium pingshaense is toxic to these insects, and it can be employed to control their population, but its killing rate is too low. Lovett and Bilgo addressed the issue by inserting in the fungus’ spores a gene encoding for an insect-specific neurotoxin. In this way, 75% of mosquitos infected with the genetically engineered spores died.
This result is exceptional, and represents a milestone in the war against parasite-caused diseases, demonstrating how genetic engineering can be a formidable tool to create new allies that will help us in fighting.