Genetic Engineering and Diseases – Gene Drive & Malaria

What if you could use genetic engineering to stop one of humanity's most dangerous predators?
The deadliest animal on the planet responsible for the deaths of billions: the mighty mosquito With other illnesses he is the host of malaria one of the cruelest parasites on earth. Possibly one of the greatest human killers in history.

Just in 2015 hundreds of millions have been infected and almost half a million have died. New technology could help us eradicate malaria forever. But to do that, we have to design an entire animal species. It’s not a hypotetic problem, modified mosquitoes already exist in the laboratory.

Should we use technology and is malaria bad enough to risk it? 

 Malaria is caused by a group of microorganisms: plasmodium very bizarre microorganisms which consist of only one cell. They are parasites that are completely dependent on mosquitoes. Malaria always starts with an insect bite. Thousands of spores in its salivary glands aligned wait for the insect to penetrate your skin. Immediately after invading you they go to the liver where they quietly infiltrate cells and hide from the immune system. For a month, they stay here in stealth mode consuming living cells and changing into their next form small, drop like merozoites .

They multiply, generating thousands of similars and then burst the cell. Thousands of parasites rush into the bloodstream in search of their next victims Red blood cells. To go unnoticed, they wrap themselves in the membranes of the cells they killed .Imagine this: Kill someone from the inside then take their skin as camouflage ... Brutal! They are now violently attacking red cells multiplying inside until they explode ... looking for more red cells And the cycle repeats over and over ... Leftover dead cells spread toxic waste that activate a powerful immune response causing flu-like symptoms

Symptoms include high fevers, sweating and chills convulsions, headaches, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. If malaria reaches the blood defenses of the brain, it can cause coma, neurological damage or death. The parasites are ready for evacuation now. When another mosquito bites the infected human, they get carried away. The cycle can start again. In 2015, the zika virus, which causes horrible birth defects, if it infects pregnant women, is rapidly spreading to new regions of the globe. It too is transmitted by mosquitoes. The mosquito is the perfect transmitter for human diseases. They've been there for 200 million years, they are billions and one can lay more than 300 eggs at a time.

They are practically impossible to eradicate and are the perfect taxis for parasites. But today we have revolutionary new technologies which could ultimately allow us to win the war against them: CRISPR For the first time in human history we have the tools to make rapid large-scale changes for an entire species, change their genetic information at our discretion.

why not change the type that transmits diseases? 

Using genetic engineering, scientists have successfully created a kind of mosquito who are immune to the malaria parasite by adding a new antibiotic gene that specifically targets plasmodium. These mosquitoes will never spread malaria. But simply changing genetic information is not enough. Additions will only be inherited by half the descendants because some genes have two versions at a time within the genome for safety. So after two generations at most, half of the descendants will have the modified gene. In a population of billions of mosquitoes, they will hardly make a difference. A method of genetic modification called "the gene reader" solves this problem. It forces the new gene to become dominant in subsequent generations replacing the old gene almost entirely.

Thanks to this round, 99.5% of all descendants of modified mosquitoes will carry the anti-malaria gene. If we manage to release enough modified mosquitoes in the wild with other normal mosquitoes, the anti-malaria gene will spread extremely quickly. The new gene becoming a permanent feature in mosquitoes the plasmodium will lose its habitat. Scientists hope change will be so rapid that they will not be able to adapt it quickly enough. Malaria could practically disappear. If you take into account that almost 500,000 children die from it every year, 5 have died since you started reading this post . some scientists argue that this technology should be used sooner rather than later. The mosquitos themselves may only benefit, they have nothing to gain by wearing parasites. And that can only be the first step malaria could only be the beginning. Other mosquitoes also carry dengue fever and zika. Ticks transmit lyme disease. Flies transmit sleeping sickness. Fleas transmit the plague. We could save millions of lives and prevent disease on an incredible scale.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

 why haven't we done it yet? 

First, gene replacement has been practiced for 4 years, so until recently, we just couldn't do it that quickly and easily. And they are all concerned. Never before have humans consciously changed the genetic code of a free living organism on this scale. Once you do, there is no turning back. So it must be done right because there could be unintended consequences if we expose two added nature. In the specific case of malaria, the risk may be acceptable as long as the modification does not imply a big change in the global genome, it only changes a very specific part. The worst case scenario is probably that it wouldn't work, or that the parasites adapt negatively. There is always a lot of debate.

Technology as powerful as genetic modification should be handled with great care. But on some point, we have to ask ourselves Is it immoral not to use this technology when every day 1000 children die Humanity must decide how to handle this in the coming years. Public discussion is far behind the technology in this case. What do you think?

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