STOCKHOLM – Cages tangled in women’s tights and crawling from mosquitoes are hidden in a Swedish laboratory. Every day, researchers feed them beetroot juice that is loaded with deadly toxins, part of a grand plan to fight malaria.
With hopes of field trials repeatedly delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers in Sweden still believe they have found the secret to a new, environmentally friendly way to kill the malaria-carrying mosquito Anopheles.
So hopeful they’ve started a company to turn their discovery into a commercially viable alternative to the pesticides currently used to kill mosquitoes, but which can also harm people and the environment.
Researcher Noushin Emami, 44, jokes that it’s like a pet, but unlike a pet, these mosquitoes are made to drink a poisoned goblet.
You are being tricked because the liquid contains the exact molecule that makes people with malaria so appetizing.
“If we add this molecule to another solution, we make this solution very palatable to mosquitoes,” says Emami, a molecular infection biologist at Stockholm University.
“Like the taste of a fresh baguette or a pizza for a hungry creature … straight out of the oven,” she told AFP.
In December, the WHO reported 241 million malaria cases in 2020, up from 219 million in 2019, with an estimated 627,000 deaths – 96 percent of them in Africa. 80 percent of the deaths were due to children under the age of five.
Malaria not only makes people sick, whoever becomes infected is also more attractive to mosquitoes, which then transmit the parasite to more and more people.
In 2017, Emami and her colleagues discovered that this was due to a specific molecule called HMBPP, which is released as the parasite that causes malaria attacks the body’s red blood cells.
“Eat it and Die”
Emami opens what looks like a giant refrigerator with a temperature of 27 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) to reveal shelves of water-filled containers full of wriggling larvae and the improvised mosquito cages that she and her team feed on a daily basis.
By adding a trace amount of toxins combined with the molecule to beetroot juice instead of human blood, mosquitoes will eat it and die, said Emami, Associate Professor at the University of Greenwich, London.
The aim is also to use “harmless, environmentally friendly and easy to obtain killing substances”.
Lech Ignatowicz, who co-founded Molecular Attraction with Emami to commercialize the discovery, said the new method has the potential to drastically change the fight against mosquitos, which spread disease.
“The most effective way to kill mosquitoes is still using pesticides, but we know that pesticides not only kill mosquitoes, but other insects and other life forms,” Ignatowicz told AFP.
There is also evidence that pesticides are becoming less effective. Nearly 80 countries reported to the World Health Organization that mosquitoes were resistant to at least one of the four most common insecticides between 2010 and 2019.
“Problem with upscaling”
Not only is the molecule relatively cheap but, according to Ignatowicz, another benefit of how precisely it can target mosquitoes.
“Even in very dense environments, in the jungle or in tropical environments with a lot of insects, we can choose the ones we want to get rid of … and leave the rest of the ecosystem alone,” said Ignatowicz.
While the team is focused on malaria, the method has the potential to be adapted to fight the spread of other diseases transmitted by insects or even rodents.
The next step is to test the method in the field.
Anders Lindstrom, a mosquito researcher at the Swedish National Veterinary Institute who is not affiliated with the project, told AFP he was “cautiously optimistic” about the method but said there was still much to be done.
“The problem is always the scaling. The areas that need to be covered with this type of trap in order to have an effect are huge, ”explained Lindstrom.
Each method must also be used consistently over time, which can be difficult in poor or conflict-affected areas where malaria is prevalent.
“They can have a pretty quick effect on reducing populations, but once you stop they come back,” said Lindstrom.
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