Malaria Prevention Breakthrough Could Bring Hope For Many

A revolutionary approach to ending a global scourge aims to break the cycle of transmission.

May 14, 2020

Here’s some really exciting news for mankind. In the race to control malaria, the mosquito-bourne disease responsible for the deaths of over 400,000 people a year, especially children, researchers report a prevention breakthrough. A microbe similar to fungi that stops mosquitoes from being infected with malaria, Microsporidia MB, has been identified in mosquitos. Not one mosquito which was carrying the bug was found to be harboring the malaria parasite.

So far, most malaria interventions have focused on preventing humans from being infected by malaria parasites. The hope with the discovery of this microbe, is that it could be used to block the transmission of malaria parasites from the insect vectors (carriers) to humans in the first place by protecting mosquitos from malaria, so breaking the chain of transmission.

Jeremy Herren, lead researcher at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, told the BBC that "the data we have so far suggest it is 100 per cent blockage, it's a very severe blockage of malaria…I think people will find it a real big breakthrough.”

The Microsporidia MB microbe lives in the gut and genitals of mosquitos and is a life-long infection, but does not appear to be harmful to its insect hosts . Researchers at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, working together with scientists from the University of Glasgow, in the UK, found that this newly identified microbe can prevent mosquitos from being infected by malaria parasites by altering their immune systems.

Scientists reported that the mosquitos carrying the microbial symbiont Microsporidia MB, could not be infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the most common malaria parasite in Africa, after experimental infection with the microbe in laboratories. The results apply in nature too. Low levels of the microbe naturally occur in mosquitoes in Kenya, preventing some mosquitos from carrying the malaria parasite.

The research, published in the Nature Communications journal, explains the pressing need for a new approach to controlling this disease, which remains a major obstacle to economic development in sub-Saharan Africa: “Large-scale insecticide treated net (ITN) distribution campaigns over the previous 15 years have reduced malaria cases by an estimated 40%. However, progress has plateaued; between 2014 and 2016 global incidence remained essentially the same. This is a strong indication that current control measures are insufficient and additional novel strategies to control Anopheles mosquito populations or their capacity to transmit Plasmodium [malaria-causing] parasites are needed if we are to make further inroads in reducing malaria incidence.”

So what are the next steps? As our TRT World video reveals, lead researcher, Jeremy Herren, is positive that “The blocking mechanism is very strong, so we don’t actually need to know how it works in terms of blocking to implement this symbiote as a control measure. I think the biggest hurdle we’ll have in order to get this out there and to make a difference will be to find a way to increase the prevalence of this microbe in mosquito populations.”

Harren outlines that the microbe is probably already having a very small effect on malaria transmission as in some mosquito populations, up to 25 percent  do have it. Looking ahead, the team aims to elevate the prevalence of this microbe by up to 40 to 50 percent to have a very significant effect and potentially break the transmission cycle.

Herren points out that the microbe has some promising features that could help facilitate his team’s goal. If a mother has the microbe, she passes it on to her offspring. This makes it a sustainable solution in insects with such short lifespans. The microbe is also transmitted between mosquitos, opening up the possibility of releasing male mosquitos with the microbe, who could go on to quickly spread it among mosquito populations.

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DAPHNE KASRIEL ALEXANDER, EDITOR IN CHIEF
Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.