The mosquito is regularly crowned the most deadly animal on Earth, and with good reason. Infectious diseases spread by these insects—including malaria, dengue, and Zika—mean mosquitoes are responsible for 725,000 human deaths every year.
Rather than looking for a vaccine for each of these different diseases, what if we made a vaccine against mosquitoes themselves?
That’s exactly what scientists have done, and they’re about to test it on humans for the first time. The vaccine, called AGS-v, was developed by researchers in London and is about to be tested through a small trial conducted by the National Institutes of Health.
Mutant mosquitoes are the stuff of dystopian sci-fi. But these days, they’re very real. You may have heard that Florida is considering releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in certain areas to curb the spread of Zika. The same company that makes the modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—a UK firm called Oxitec—is already dumping them around parts of Brazil to help stop the spread of Zika and other diseases (including dengue and chikungunya). And when I say dumping, I mean that quite literally, as in, dumped out of a moving van.
These mosquitoes have been genetically modified in a lab, bred to carry genes that make their offspring infertile, wiping out a generation of potential disease-carrying hosts before they have a chance to infect humans. This is the height of human intervention in nature, and an advanced biotechnological feat.
In 1982, when the CDC first began using the term AIDS, Philip Morris was in its 29th year of record-breaking profits. Despite decades of ever-increasing doomsaying, smoking was still pretty normal—a fact of life on airplanes and buses and in restaurants. Much of the world still bore a grody yellow tinge.
An HIV infection then was a death sentence. HIV would certainly lead to AIDS, which would in turn open the body to catastrophic encounters with opportunistic infections. This picture began to change dramatically in mid-1990s with the advent of antiretroviral therapy (ART). HIV is now a manageable condition, requiring maintenance on par with, say, diabetes (as oft remarked), but otherwise allowing a pretty normal life. Cigarettes, meanwhile, are still cigarettes. They are about as deadly now as they were then.
According to a study out this week in the the Journal of Infectious Diseases, those with HIV infections who are also smokers are now more likely to die from smoking than anything related to HIV itself. In fact, among European populations smoking was found to reduce life expectancies among those with HIV by about twice as much HIV itself. In the US, where rates of HIV treatment adherence are generally worse, HIV and smoking are about equal in terms of (indirect) causes of death.
A species of malaria-causing parasite that is increasingly being transmitted from macaques to humans in South Asia has the potential to evolve into a more virulent form that is also capable of being efficiently transmitted from human to human. This is according to a paper published Monday morning in the journal Nature Communications by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
P. knowlesi, aka „monkey malaria,“ has been stalking the Earth already for some 257,000 years, but in that time the parasite has largely left humans out of its business. In some large part this has to do with a relative lack of overlap between human populations and macaque populations. As such, mosquitoes get to feast on the blood of one species or the other but rarely both.
Lately, however, monkey malaria has become a significant human threat in the countries of South Asia, particularly Borneo. In February, researchers were able to link massive deforestation in that country to the parasite’s increasing spread—it turns out that one species of macaque known to carry P. knowlesi thrives on deforested land. Put this together with a general increase in human encroachment on macaque territory in the region and we have an ideal case for introducing the parasite to human populations in far greater numbers.
Scientists and politicians are looking for solutions and, as often happens in the midst of the outbreak of any mosquito-born illness, some have brought up an age-old idea: kill every mosquito on Earth. In an article for Slate published Friday, columnist Daniel Engber argued that the total and complete eradication of mosquitoes is our best option for fighting infectious disease.
But what would a world free of mosquitoes look like? Would it be an Earth in which the infectious diseases that plague millions are completely, permanently, and mercifully wiped out? Probably not. In fact, the eradication of an entire species could bring along with it an endless string of unforeseen consequences, one that could possibly be worse for humans than the problems we have now.
„We don’t need to wipe them all out to dramatically reduce the burden of mosquito-borne disease globally.”
The need to deal with the enormous and heartbreaking problem of mosquito-borne illnesses is more urgent than ever. In 2014, Bill Gates famously introduced the mosquito as the “deadliest animal in the world,” citing that mosquito-borne illnesses kill some 725,000 people each year. Malaria alone kills 6 million people every decade. Then there’s Dengue Fever, West Nile virus, chikungunya, and a host of other deadly illnesses, all brought about by tiny, bloodsucking mosquitoes. In fact, mosquitoes, despite not carrying sharp teeth or large body size, are deadly only in their ability to carry and transmit disease.
Plant-derived medicines have been around forever, but until the development of a process called biopharming, they’ve been restricted to whatever naturally-occurring medicines the plants themselves could produce. Now scientists are converting plants like Nicotiana benthamiana and Nicotiana tobaccum into manufacturing platforms for a wide range of targeted protein-based therapies to treat Ebola, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
PlantForm, a Guelph, Ontario-based company, is one of a few dozen biotech firms around the world developing these plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs). Only one such drug has so far made it to market—Elelyso, which is made by an an Israeli company called Protalix and used to treat a rare disease called Gaucher disease. But many more are on the way, including PlantForm’s version of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, scheduled to become available in 2016.