UKBSF_BBSRC_LAlpheyIn this session at the UK Bioscience Forum, BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2014, Professor Luke Alphey, discussed Oxitec’s genetic engineering approach to controlling mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever. BBSRC are currently accepting nominations for the 2015 award. The Innovator of the Year competition is open to all BBSRC-funded scientists and recognises and rewards individuals and small teams who have harnessed the potential of their excellent research. More information is available from BBSRC.

Dengue fever is the fastest growing mosquito-borne viral disease, with around 40% of the world’s population living in areas where there is a risk of dengue transmission. The World Health Organization estimates that between 50 and 100 million infections occur per year, carrying an estimated economic burden of $5 billion.

Symptoms of the disease include joint pain, muscle pain and high fever with around 5% of clinical cases resulting in the potentially fatal Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever (DHF). The virus is carried and transmitted primarily by female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that remain infected for life and thus the virus can be transmitted every time they bite. Presently, there is no specific preventative treatment or vaccine for the disease, highlighting the need to address this global unmet health challenge.

Current dengue vector control measures include eliminating the places where female mosquitoes lay their eggs, such as by draining stagnant water sources. Fogging with insecticide is also a common measure conducted in endemic areas; however its effectiveness is debated as well as bringing noise and air pollution issues.

Oxitec, a spin out company from Oxford University, aims to combat insect borne diseases such as dengue through genetic engineering approaches. Their technology has the potential to provide clean and environmentally friendly control of mosquitoes. It uses engineered male mosquitoes, which are able to mate with wild females but their offspring do not develop into fully functional adults due to inherited lethal genes.UKBSF_BBSRC_slide

When the Oxitec males are released in large numbers they out-number the wild type males, meaning that the chance of a female mating with an Oxitec male is greater. The Oxitec males are indistinguishable to females from wild type males, periodic release will therefore cause the population of Aedes aegypti to collapse accompanied by a reduction in the incidence of dengue fever.

Many trials of the technology have taken place in dengue endemic countries. After gaining regulatory approval, the Oxitec mosquitoes were initially released in the Cayman Islands in 2009 where the sustained release of Oxitec males successfully suppressed the field population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Several field trials have since been conducted in countries including Brazil and Malaysia.

Professor Alphey described the challenges of taking new technology to the field from technical, regulatory and community perspectives. He discussed how Oxitec engages with local communities through presentations, TV and radio broadcasts, local festivals, educational leaflets and meetings with local residents, and how these  are  adapted to local cultures and social structures.

Overall, the local response has been very positive and communities show great support for the technology. This technology presents an innovative approach to treating mosquito based diseases. You can keep up to date with the latest news and field trials via Oxitec’s website. Oxitec have also produced an eBook entitled ‘Dengue Fever. The fastest growing mosquito borne disease’ which can be downloaded here.