Via STAT: Gene drives could halt malaria in West Africa — if residents agree to it. Excerpt:
BANA, Burkina Faso — This small village of mud-brick homes in West Africa might seem the least likely place for an experiment at the frontier of biology.
Yet scientists here are engaged in what could be the most promising, and perhaps one of the most frightening, biological experiments of our time. They are preparing for the possible release of swarms of mosquitoes that, until now, have been locked away in a research lab behind double metal doors and guarded 24/7.
The goal: to nearly eradicate the population of one species of mosquito, and with it, the heavy burden of malaria across Africa.
These scientists are planning to release mosquitoes equipped with “gene drives,” a technology that overrides nature’s genetic rules to give every baby mosquito a certain trait that normally only half would acquire. Once such an insect gets out into the wild, it will move indiscriminately and spread its modified trait without respect for political borders.
No living thing — no mammal, insect, or plant — with a gene drive has ever been set free. But if all goes as planned, it might happen here, in a remote village of about a thousand people, where the residents don’t even have a word for “gene.”
Despite such barriers, this is in some ways the most logical place to carry out the experiment. Nowhere does malaria exact a higher toll than here in sub-Saharan Africa, where hundreds of thousands die from the disease every year. And Burkina Faso already houses one of Africa’s highest-profile malaria research laboratories.
It may be six years before the gene drive mosquitoes are actually released in Burkina Faso, but scientists are already working around the clock to prepare the community for their release. Researchers in Mali and Uganda are also working toward the same goal under the banner of the “Target Malaria” project, propelled by $70 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and support from research laboratories in England and Italy.
Speaking through interpreters, residents across Burkina Faso told STAT that they are grateful for the scientists’ work, and are eagerly looking forward to eliminating the dreaded disease.
But scientists still face a challenge: making sure that people understand and accept the newfangled genetic technology behind it all. That means building trust and doing basic education — explaining not only the impact of genetically engineered insects arriving in their homes, but also what genetics is in the first place.