ASU professor says genetically modified mosquitoes may stop Zika virus

At first glance, it sounds like the start of a sci-fi horror flick: using genetically modified mosquitoes to cure Zika virus. ASU’s Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Innovation Lab, assesses the effects of this research.

Zika virus has reached a pandemic level, spreading rapidly across the Americas over the past month, with the Center for Disease Control reporting cases across 16 U.S. states and territories.

Although the thought of using genetically modified mosquitoes isn’t unheard of with similar practices being developed to combat malaria, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases, there are still risks to account for while considering the use of the insects.

“It’s not so much that I advocate it," Maynard said. "What interests me is that there is this whole new technology we can use to fight disease, but this also opens up new concerns on how to use this technology.”

When assessing the balance of risks and rewards, there are many variables to take into account, such as the possibility of eliminating the disease, but Maynard said there are many risks to factor into the situation and many questions to answer.

“Nobody is really sure about what would happen because we are in uncharted territory,” he said. “It could completely modify the specimen or remove it from the ecosystem. We have to ask: Will it kill or harm people? Will it harm the environment? Because of that, it’s worth the while to make the best decisions possible.”

Oxitec, the research company conducting the most research with genetically modified mosquitoes, addresses the risks of diseases such as Zika virus. 

Oxitec representative Matthew Warren said risk assessment is an important part of the research's implementation process.

“In all countries, before we release our mosquitoes, an independent regulatory process examines the risks and benefits, with full access to trials and independent studies on our mosquitoes," Warren wrote in an email.

Although it may be too early to judge its effectiveness on Zika, the same type of research has been proven to reduce cases of dengue fever in Brazil, and the early results have been positive. 

Warren said the research has already shown a reduction of 82 percent in wild mosquito larvae as of last month.

"On the basis of these positive results, there are plans to extend the project from its current area covering 5,000 residents, to an area covering 35,000-60,000 residents," Warren wrote. "Additionally, we are initiating a new mosquito production facility that will have the capacity to protect over 300,000 people."

In terms of risk, the Word Health Organization recently backed the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat Zika virus. 

Although the virus hasn’t made its way into Arizona, it has been found in other nearby states, including California. 

Bradley Doebbeling, a professor at ASU’s College of Health Solutions, said that while this may be serious issue, containment is plausible. He said the disease is spread two ways.

“We know it is spread through a mosquito bite and through sexual activity," Doebbeling said. "So far, all the cases in the U.S. have been through travel associated cases, so a strong way to prevent Zika is to be aware when travelling and practicing safe sex.”

Doebbeling said the research with mosquitoes seems promising. 

“I thought it sounded fascinating,” he said. “It’s going to be quite a long time before it has an effect, but I think it’s a promising strategy, not just for Zika, but for many mosquito-based diseases.”

Related Links:

The controversy behind genetically modified fish

Another plate of genetically modified organisms, please


Reach the reporter at Ethan.Millman@asu.edu or follow @Millmania1 on Twitter.

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