DOST explores GM mosquito applications against dengue

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Part of its advocacy to find solutions against dengue, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) explores the possibility of using genetically-modified mosquito (GMM) to curb the population of dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

In a conference organized by the DOST, experts from the University of California and the Oxitec Technologies of the United Kingdom (UK) presented the aspects of genetically-engineered male mosquitoes to the scientists and biotechnology experts of DOST and other concerned agencies at the Hyatt Hotel last 12 September 2011.

“Male mosquitoes were basically used because they don’t bite humans and they have significant role in the reproduction of mosquitoes,” said Dr. Anthony James, Professor at the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, University of California. Through the “Release of Insects carrying a Dominant Lethal” (RIDL) technology, male mosquitoes are engineered to contain a gene that can be passed on to female mosquito by mating. The mating results to unviable female mosquito offspring.

“The gene targets a certain muscle on a female mosquito that affects the development of wings – thus flightless female mosquitoes are produced.” The flightless female mosquito can’t seek host to take blood meal. Thus, it can’t spread the dengue virus,” said Dr. James. “This is also lethal for female mosquitoes because they are more likely to be eaten by predators. Continuous release of male mosquitoes in the wild will eventually cut-off the population of deadly mosquitoes,” added Dr. James.

“From a decade of research in the laboratory, GM mosquitoes have been tested in an open field in Grand Cayman Island and Malaysia. We are extremely successful,” said Dr. Luke Alphy, Chief Scientist Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom and Co-Founder of the Oxitec Technologies – a biotech company based in UK. “The project was also approved by regulating bodies for import and contained testing in Brazil, France, India and Singapore.”

Oxitec has released 3 million GM mosquitoes, an estimated 10 males for every native female, in the wild within a 40-acre area of the Grand Cayman Island. According to studies, the population of mosquitoes dropped by 80% compared to the regions of the island where there were no released GM male mosquitoes.

“The technology is ready to use. In fact, our team is going out to different countries to promote it and be of help to control the diseases brought by mosquitoes,” said Dr. Alphy. “Once mosquitoes are released in the wild, we expect to see suppression of mosquito’s population within two to three months over a large area.”

However, the DOST clarifies and assures the public that they will study the technology first, prior to its approval and implementation in the Philippines. “Our main goal here is to eliminate dengue, not to bring harm in our country,” said Dr. Jaime Montoya of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) of DOST.

“We know that Filipinos are highly aware of issues like genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and we expect more comments from the public. In fact, the Philippines is first in Asia to commercialize GMO. Now, we have awareness, we know the pros and the cons. We are now in a better position to decide whether this technology will be useful or not. After all, we have the National Committee on Biosafety who will be the ultimate policy approving body for GMOs in the country, “added Dr. Montoya.

Because it is a new technology, Dr. Montoya said that it is important to consider different measures needed to be in place to maintain the technology. “We need manpower to do the confined trials or field trials, refine the biosafety framework particular for GMM, infrastructures, and get the engagement of the community,” concluded Dr. Montoya.

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