The bold plan to end malaria with a gene drive

The bold plan to end malaria with a gene drive

These mosquito larvae in a lab at Imperial
College in London have been genetically engineered to glow red under a laser. But that red fluorescence is just a marker
— It’s there to tell the researchers that something profound has happened. I ran out and I grabbed my supervisor
… I was like Tony but you know you’ve got to look at this. So we started going through and I read them
off one by one and I was like red, red, red, red and we just… It was a very crazy time. We just started screaming and getting
super excited. Since only one of their parents had a copy
of the red gene, you’d expect around 50% of the larvae to be red. But nearly 100% of them were glowing. The researchers had hacked the rules of inheritance
with what’s called a gene drive. But the red gene isn’t the point – it’s
been linked to a genetic tool that renders female mosquitoes infertile. And that’s a huge deal because this isn’t
just any old mosquito species. This is anopheles gambiae,
one of the mosquitos that carries the parasite that causes malaria. So malaria is mostly a sub-saharan African
disease. It affects people in the Indian subcontinent,
Southeast Asia, but it’s primarily a disease of Sub-Saharan Africa. And the majority of malaria deaths in any
given year in the world, hundreds of thousands of deaths, are kids under 5 in Africa. Over the past 15 years, there’s been a big
investment in bed nets, insecticides, and better treatment. And I think the result has been a lot of steady
progress on malaria. That being said, it’s progress against a
really, really high death rate. Most African countries really want to try
to eliminate it and WHO is really in support of this, they’ve set some targets to achieve
in 2030. And where we stand now, we don’t seem to
be on course for achieving those. While researchers continue to work on a vaccine,
genetic approaches to malaria look increasingly promising. Genetically modified mosquitoes aren’t new
– a company called Oxitec has released mosquitoes in Brazil that are designed to have nonviable
offspring. But those don’t contain a gene drive, which
biases inheritance so that the modification continues to be passed through a population,
though they can also be designed to have a more local reach. The idea of driving desirable genes into insect
populations dates back decades, but progress toward that goal jumped ahead
after the invention of the CRISPR gene editing tool in 2012. CRISPR allows scientists make precise changes
to DNA in the lab. A CRISPR gene drive could let them push those
changes through a wild population of insects. It works by inserting the gene editing tool
itself into a chosen segment of the mosquito’s DNA. From there, CRISPR induces the cell to copy
the package onto the matching chromosome. Like us, mosquitoes have 2 copies of each
gene, one from each parent. And now that the gene drive is on both chromosomes,
it will get passed on to all the offspring, where it will copy onto their other chromosome,
and so on. So depending on what biologists attach to
that package, like the red fluorescent gene, they can make some drastic changes to wild
populations. There are two broad approaches to malaria
mosquitoes. The team at Imperial College is part of an
international group called Target Malaria, funded mostly by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. And they’re aiming to use gene drives to
suppress mosquito populations. Their drives are designed to spread female
infertility or to prevent females from being born, with the effect of shrinking a population
of mosquitoes. Then there’s a team of researchers at the
University of California institutions who have been developing a gene drive that
alters, rather than shrinks, the mosquito population. It spreads genes that make mosquitoes resistant
to the malaria parasite, so they don’t transmit it between humans. The World Health Organization has outlined
the steps that G.M. mosquitoes should go through before being deployed. Gene drive research
is in phase 1 now, but to find out if it could really work, they
need to test it outside of a lab. And the researchers say their mosquitoes should
be ready for phase 2 soon. I’m hoping the science is well within five
years. Maybe even half that. Maybe in one or two years. A couple of years. But then that’s in the lab in London. After something’s ready in the lab in London
you’d really want to go through very rigorous testing. So with every health intervention or technology
there’s kind of a spectrum of how much testing and how much certainty people require before
they just try it. This is always a trade-off in any medical
trial, if you develop a drug and it’s a miracle and it helps everyone, when do you
stop the trial and just start giving that to everyone? Once we have a gene drive that we can release
in the wild that could wipe out malaria, every year we don’t do that is 500,000 to 700,000,
mostly kids, dying. Kevin Esvelt the MIT scientist who’s working
on gene drives, was talking to me and he said
Malaria is a case where there are really strong ethical argument of doing something now today
because so many children have died just in the time that we’ve been speaking. I would say at least 20. And his takeaway from that wasn’t let’s
do this as fast as possible. It’s let’s do this right, because if we
don’t do this right, then there’s going to be a massive backlash and we’re never
going to be able to do anything like this ever again. Yeah if you move forwards with a unilateral
“we are going to save the kids whether you like it or not,” really does imperil
the broader malaria eradication effort. Target Malaria has begun a lengthy process
of building facilities and staff in 4 African countries, where they’ll be working with
non-gene-drive mosquitoes before importing the gene drive mosquitoes. And even then, there’s more lab work to
do before an actual release. So the modified one is modified using a laboratory
strain. So you have to do experiments to make
sure you incorporate the natural genetic background of the mosquitoes in the area where you want
to work. At each stage, they’re consulting with local
communities and with governments about this genetic technology that’s designed to spread
across borders. There are no regulators that have handled
this before. Not only just in Africa, but anywhere. I think i’m curious about you know this
notion that we have a public conversation, we need to get people on board, this notion
that that would somehow lead to some clear consensus or some clear green light. At some point someone has to decide. And I’m curious if you have a sense of who
that is. Yeah, that’s the million dollar question
and no one I talked to even pretended to have the answer. The end game that got alluded to by a lot
of people was some kind of agreement by the African Union about releasing a self-propagating
drive. One tricky thing is malaria does not solely infect people in democratic countries like
Ghana or Senegal. It also affects people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which despite
the name is a dictatorship. Countries with really unstable and in many cases really awful
governance. So one tricky question is, if the African Union
comes together and says yeah we’re ok with this, is that legitimate? Are they speaking for people in Africa? And I think a lot the work that scientists
are doing is trying to reach out before that and trying to start a conversation before that to make
sure it’s legitimate. As the public debate begins, there’s a risk
that the politics of genetically modified crops could spill over to the mosquito issue. Anti-GMO groups like Friends of the Earth
have already called for a moratorium on gene drive research. They fear it will be misused
by agribusiness and militaries and cause unintended damage to ecosystems. No one in this is as big of a son of a bitch
as nature. Like, nature is so awful in every conceivable way. It is completely indifferent to suffering. But I think many of the things we look back
on as humans as our greatest achievements: getting rid of small pox, penicillin, insulin
for diabetics, mass vaccinations. Those are all things that involved messing
with nature and either repurposing or tweaking things that nature created, for our own uses. Some of the worst things we’ve made have
also done that. But I look at the earth as something
we’ve got to keep going for us and other animals but I don’t look at it as this morally
benevolent place. It’s a horror show that we’re trying to
manage as best we can and this is an ambitious but really interesting way to manage it. For a bunch more information about this fascinating topic, go read Dylan’s feature article on I’ll put a link in the comments. And if you’re interested in genetic engineering more broadly, we have an episode on our Netflix show called “Designer DNA,” and it’s about genetic engineering in human beings. That’s on Netflix, go check it out. Check out all the other episodes too, we’re publishing them weekly on Wednesdays.

100 thoughts on “The bold plan to end malaria with a gene drive

  1. To learn more, read Dylan's article here: And check out our Netflix show! Explained:

    – joss

  2. But wait, isn't erradicating the musquito population going to affect the food change or the biodiversity somehow? Cannot that have an adverse affect on the human population? I think the second option about making them unable to infect humans is the better one.

  3. What does wiping out a whole species of mosquitoes do to the ecosystem tho? It seems less risky to do the malaria resistant ones instead imo

  4. Couldn't they just make it so that mosquitoes DON'T transmit viruses or something? I feel like killing off mosquitoes will bring about some sort of apocalypse.

  5. Still not have a clue about how can they prevent runaway. Let's say the red-glowing gene, how can it only propagate among mosquitos?

  6. Hi, I have a degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics and during my studies I often read about this topic. I personally agree with a responsible use of genetic drive, but in the scientific community (for what I know at least) there is a big debate regarding their use. The major concern is that no such thing with a spreading capability of a genetic drive exist in nature so we don’t have any clue of how it will evolve even in the short term, for example it could inactivate itself by random mutation, or it could spread to other species where it could have a completely different effect (we know that the horizontal gene transfer could be more common than expected, we saw it happening in the wild fruit fly in the matter of years). I totally agree with its use, we are talking about saving lives. But I am afraid that it will take a lot of time before its use. However I am not specialising in this field so my point of view could be a little dated.

  7. Why are you neglecting the potencial use of genetic engineering as a tool against human population?
    Is this the first time than scientist decide to investigate something without thinking in where will end and how is gonna be used or by whom?
    None of that matter as their are just making progress in the name of science which shouldn't be thinking as an ideology or a religion but merely as a method, and still they go "hoping" for the best from the people who pay them for their work.
    As a person from a poor country I can't get excited about this investigation but only fear the use that those bosses will do when they feel is advanced enough to apply it in humans.
    Are those scientist new in this world? or just like to pretend they care?

  8. Step 1: Make malaria resistant mosquitoes
    Step 2: Release them into the wild
    Step 3: Nature makes malaria resistant to genetically modified mosquitoes
    Step 4: Super malaria wipes out human race.

  9. The resistance to malaria seems to be a much better idea because killing all the mosquitoes would have very negative impacts one the environment

  10. But what if evil people use this knowladge as a weapon against humans at one point?Like the genophage in mass effect…

  11. I'm honestly getting a little teary-eyed watching this. It would be amazing to see millions of people saved. I have a 3 year old kid and I just started thinking how lucky he is to not have to suffer from Malaria.

  12. Far left from Europe and America against eradicating a deadly disease which affects mostly Africans. Oh the irony.

  13. Has anyone even tried to ask Paul Stamets how he discovered how to save bee colonies from collapsing from the parasites they have and how that may translate into getting to the ROOT of the issue, the parasite, and not the mosquito itself? The real obstacle here isn’t how to genetically engineer, but the incarcerating beliefs that’s it’s the only option. Geometric results and therefore quantum leaps to life saving solutions are openly readily available.

  14. Messing with nature eh? Whats the difference between human contraception or vaccines VS what they're trying to do to mosquitos? hmmmm

  15. Do you all understand what a food chain is? As in it always starts at the bottom somewhere? That near bottom would be mosquitoes. You take them out and you will SEVERELY impact the entirety of the ecosystem they lived in. I'm definitely for whipping out this atrocious disease, but I'm scared of the repercussion to come… I hope they don't choose the gene drive from the London labs.

  16. So we’re solving the problem of malaria but what about overpopulation? Sounds bad but should we be trying to cure every disease?

  17. This is outstanding content. I'd only recommend spending more time on the name you choose for each episode. Mentioning the "ethical dilemma" would score better hits. BTW, just as a geek tradition of random marriage proposals: "marry me Joss!".  

    Kudos on this channel, curated content is the future of education via social networks.

  18. If you are so sure this is a good idea, why not genetically modify people to be malaria resistant?
    I think we all know the answer.

  19. They had better be careful a super virus might begin to plague Europe and America in response. Stupid scientists think they are gods.

  20. US scientists want to introduce the Gene Drive into the Congo?!….a country where the U.S's CIA funded the Mobuto and Kabiila regimes.
    Profits made by the US's military arms industrial complex through pillaging, plundering and destruction……and profits made by US philanthropic and drug manufacturing entities through providing so called cures. That is a snap shot of how the U.S empire is/was formed.

  21. Mary Shelley is laughing & crying in her grave ppl. The risk is absolutely worth it.
    I want this 'Friend of the Earth' & "Monsanto protesters' to look these dying kids in the eyes while they breathe their last breaths & THEN they will understand what this means to modern medicine & science. (Big companies suck, they exist to make ALL THE MONEY in the entire world. I understand that. I also understand that we waste a gigantic amount of food, which means to avoid famine we have to PRODUCE a gigantic amount of food. You're not going to reach that amount 'organically' without significant cost to the end consumer. Not without serious commitment from all aspects of 1st world economies, & even then…) (To be fair, some organic produce & meat does taste better. But I have to PAY $$$ for it. It is a luxury I'll admit.)
    DO YOU EVEN THINK? PPL ONCE ASKED FOR THIS TECHNOLOGY IN PRAYER & WISHES & NOW WE HAVE IT, & YOU WANT TO 'think of the Earth'? Yeah, do it right. Don't rush this 'biggest gamble in human history', but don't for even a second think about stopping this research before it can begin. Same with ethical stem cell research. Don't rush the development cycle of this pinnacle of science & biology but DO NOT STAND IN THE WAY.

  22. I hate the naysayers… "Friends of the Earth", please shut up. Trying to block progress is the same as murder be negligience. Just shut up and eat your tofu!

  23. It is not that we don't want to help people, the issue is that the Gene Drive is such a new method that we are still learning about. Just a year ago scientists started testing a gene drive with mice and they have already seen that after 5 generation the gene drive had been turned off, in other words, in mammals it had already presented mutations. I am not against using gene drives but also I don't think we should jump right in to trying this technology yet, especially with children. As a biology major and someone who is interest in genetics, I just ask from current scientists to do more trials and make sure how to use this technology before using it.

  24. SAWBO – Helping to fulfill on #sdg,  #sdg3, #sdg4, #sdg10, #Malaria #Prevention: watch here:   #download and share here:

  25. Malaria mosquitoes control. Fortunately, a fan blowing air towards us is a very simple and cheap method to clear the CO2 concentration around us. Moreover, mosquitoes normally do not like to fly in a windy environment and therefore will look for other victims to get their blood dose, while we can sleep quietly under the fan gust.

  26. This is not responsible or thorough journalism. There has been substantial research done into the agribusiness interests behind gene drives, which have not been mentioned at all here. Neither has the issue of ethics and consent which have been a major point of contention at the Convention on Biological Diversity where gene drives have been discussed. As well, the largest funder of gene drives is the US military, as was revealed in the Gene Drive Files. Why has none of this been mentioned in this piece? The piece gives most time and space to all those working on gene drives and promoting them (except for one interview).

  27. This disease has been prominent in it's native habitat for eons, removing it could cause untold disaster to local ecosystems and relationships we do not understand.

  28. aaaah the bill gates mosquitos with sterile genes that transfers to humans (africans),kudos to the population(african annihilation) control

  29. If they remove all the mosquitos it will completely end a food source for some animals and that will end them, we are trying to prevent extinction as well, this is something for debate not something that is logical

  30. If you think overpopulation and mass famine is bad in africa now, wait until these short-sighted scientists remove one of nature's most potent population control tools.

  31. The people against GMOs act like nature is some stable state of existence. Even without human interference nature is always changing itself. Sure, it is arrogant of us to decide to be the instigators of said change, but isn't it also our duty to take charge as caretakers?

  32. Hey, we're still waiting for dengue to go here in Singapore! The most affected place I know of is 190 cases in one HDB estate. It's terrible. 😖

  33. I really wish this method that makes them die off is gonna be used in not just to countries that has problems with diseases spreading but also to western countriese for every type of bloodsucking mosquito.

  34. Mosquitoes aren't technically the problem so much as the disease itself is the problem "Don't kill the messenger that doesn't know what it sends"

  35. why not just bring all pests to extinction with gene drives? it is essentially the ability to control nature.

  36. do these idiots know what will happen if they eradicate malaria? population explosion = lack of food , lack of water, more pollution, deforestation, global warming etc etc.

  37. Who elee thought of this as a biological weapon?
    Woteva they put in these subjects (mosquito) will be out there..

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