According to the latest estimates, there were 207 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2012 and around 627,000 deaths from the disease. For years, researchers have been working hard to find ways to eradicate malaria. Now, scientists from Imperial College London in the UK say their novel technique that causes mosquitoes to produce male-only offspring may bring us one step closer.
Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by Plasmodium parasites that are passed to humans through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.
In this latest study, recently published in the journal Nature Communications, the research team reports on a new genetic method that interferes with the sex ratio of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes - the most common transmitter of malaria parasites.
This technique causes the mosquitoes to produce male-only offspring, meaning the female mosquitoes that transmit the malaria parasite to humans are no longer produced.
To do this, the team spent 6 years creating a variant of an enzyme called I-Ppol, which they inserted into Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes.
The I-Ppol enzyme works by "cutting" the DNA of the X chromosome in sperm during reproduction - the chromosome responsible for producing female offspring. This causes almost all functioning sperm to carry only the male Y chromosome.
Modified mosquitoes 'wiped out mosquito populations over six generations'
For their study, the researchers introduced these modified mosquitoes to five separate cages containing wild-type mosquito populations.
Researchers say their novel sex modification technique - which causes mosquitoes to produce male-only offspring - could cause wild populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes to plummet.
The team found that in four of the five cages, female mosquito populations were eliminated, causing whole mosquito populations over six generations to be wiped out.
Although the team admits their research is in its early days, they are hopeful that this method could be applied to mosquito populations in the wild, effectively causing the population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes to plummet.
Co-study leader Dr. Nikolai Windbichler, of the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, notes that what makes their technique so promising as a tool for malaria elimination is the fact it is self-sustaining.
"Once modified mosquitoes are introduced, males will start to produce mainly sons, and their sons will do the same, so essentially the mosquitoes carry out the work for us," he adds.
Co-study leader Prof. Andrea Crisanti, also of the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, says:
"Malaria is debilitating and often fatal and we need to find new ways of tackling it. We think our innovative approach is a huge step forward. For the very first time, we have been able to inhibit the production of female offspring in the laboratory and this provides a new means to eliminate the disease."
This study is the latest in a line of research investigating malaria prevention and treatment strategies. Medical News Today recently reported on a study detailing the discovery of an antigen that holds promise for a malaria vaccine.
Researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine also identified a protein that they say could lead to the development of new drugs to treat malaria and toxoplasmosis.