Group proposes genetically modified mosquitoes to fight dengue

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02:14 PM September 13th, 2011

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By: Niña Calleja, September 13th, 2011 02:14 PM

MANILA, Philippines—The Department of Science and Technology is looking into the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the dreaded dengue hemorrhagic fever.

In a round table discussion attended by at least 60 Filipino scientists on Monday, foreign scientists from the British company Oxford Insect Technologies (Oxitec) and the National Academy of Sciences proposed their newest technology aimed at eradicating the Aedes aegypti species of dengue-bearing mosquitoes.

Dr. Luke Alphey, co-founder and chief scientist of Oxitec, and Dr. Anthony James, a molecular biologist and a member of NAS, who are both part of the team working on the genetically engineered mosquitoes, are in the country upon the invitation of the DOST.

The scientists have created genetically modified Aedes aegypti male mosquitoes, which, they claim,  if released in the wild and mated with female ones, can produce flightless female offspring.

“Flightless mosquitoes cannot survive in the wild and are unable to mate even in laboratory,” Alphey said, adding the number of GM mosquitoes to be released should be 10 times the number of wild male mosquitoes in a certain area.

The result of the mating, he claimed, would be is a mosquito population crash and subsequently the eradication of the mosquitoes bearing the dengue virus.

Only the female mosquitoes can transmit to humans the dengue fever, a severe flu-like illness that lasts about for a week for most victims and can be lethal to others.

This year alone, the Department of Health has recorded 63,741 dengue cases with 373 deaths.

James said that eradicating mosquitoes won’t disrupt  the  ecological balance.

“Eliminating them would not be a problem. In fact, there’s a place in the world where there used to be no mosquitoes until the colonizers showed up, and, that is Hawaii,” he said.

James said mosquitoes are also insignificant in the food chain as their predators would rather prefer to feed on larger prey.

Among the countries where Oxitec has field-tested GM mosquitoes are the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, Brazil and recently Malaysia.

Early this year, roughly 6,000 GM mosquitoes were released in Malaysia as part of Oxitec’s field test.

Alphey said that a $100,000 small-scale trial can produce results in six months.

“DOST officials came to our center in California to have an introduction about the technology…. Clearly there’s an interest,” Alphey told the Inquirer on the sidelines of the forum.

Jaime Montoya, executive director of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development of DOST, however, was quick to say that talks with the British company were merely “exploratory in nature.”

“This forum does not necessarily mean we are adopting the technology. We are trying to make scientists and most importantly, the public understand the existing technologies,” he said.

“So, only if we have understood this can we make a decision if we will adopt this or not,” he added.

He said the discussion about the GM mosquitoes is part of the national effort to look into all possible strategies to address the spread of dengue.

The use of genetically engineered mosquitoes to fight dengue will have to be approved by the National Committee on Biosafety, an office under the DOST, he said.

At least one scientist present at the forum was apprehensive about the proposed technology.

“This will be very expensive if they are going to start from scratch. I don’t think the government is capable of funding a project like this,” Ma. Nilda M. Munoz, a DOST Balik-scientist from the University of Chicago, told the Inquirer.

She said she was worried that GM mosquitoes would disrupt the balance of nature.

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