Modified Mosquitoes May Be Anti-Malaria Allies

Maggie Koerth-Baker
for National Geographic News
April 21, 2009

The enemy of our enemy may be our new partner in stopping a global health crisis.

With World Malaria Day (April 25) around the corner, new discoveries suggest our greatest allies in the fight against malaria may be the mosquitoes themselves.

Although saddled with a lousy public image, mosquitoes have immune systems that actually kill 80 to 90 percent of the malaria parasites that enter the insect's bodies, a new study says.

The discovery is part of an international effort to create a new generation of malaria treatments.

Genetically modified, malaria-fighting mosquitoes or even antibodies injected into humans and "fed" back to mosquitoes could someday be more effective at slowing the disease than today's simple mosquito nets, researchers say.

(Related: "Twitter-Celeb Mosquito Nets: What Good Will They Do?")

Triple Threat to Malaria

Malaria-parasite populations are lower when the parasites are inside mosquitoes, so some experts think it may be more effective to attack malaria inside the insects—before it enters human hosts.

Understanding how the mosquito immune system fends off malaria is an important part of bringing such a plan to fruition.

Now researchers say they've worked out the mechanism that drives one of the mosquitoes' defenses.

Three proteins in mosquito blood form a complex that "binds to a malaria parasite and punches holes through its membrane," destroying the layer that protects the parasite and holds all its important parts together, said Imperial College London biologist George Christophides, who co-authored the report, published in the April 10 issue of the journal Science.

Previously researchers had identified the three proteins and noticed that one of them seemed similar to microbe-killing proteins in other animals and in humans.

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