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Fighting dengue with "family planning" for mosquitoes (2)
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08:46, July 15, 2009

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THE ULTIMATE EXPERIMENT

So far, Oxitec's GM A. aegypti looks promising, said Kramer. Malaysia's medical research center has tested the sterile bugs in physically contained semi-field trials in a simulated three-room Malaysian dwelling.

Among a host of other concerns, researchers are primarily interested in whether the GM mosquito is able to compete with local males to win the female over and impregnate her with the never-to-be-born offspring.

"Our strain performed very well," said Kramer. "It competed very well with the local, wild Malaysian mosquitoes."

But before the Malaysian government can conduct open-field trials, a slew of national regulatory agencies must give their approval.

Dr. Yeya Toure, who leads vector research in the WHO Tropical Diseases Department (TDR), and a group of experts from around the world have begun creating regulatory standards in a framework designed to assist developing countries develop technical, safety and ethical review of trials involving GM insects.

"What the WHO and TDR want to do is to provide guidance to countries for addressing an issue that holds both potential for human health benefits and also some risks," Toure told Xinhua in a statement. "WHO, TDR and its partners intend to help countries getthe necessary guidance (so they can be) better prepared to make their own assessment and decision."

As with all GM testing, researchers are aware of public concerns about health and the environment. Oxitec has conducted several small focus groups in Malaysia, said Kramer, noting that the people they spoke to were receptive to the idea of a sterile mosquito that could reduce the rate of dengue infections.

But not everyone is convinced. Cheah Hooi Giam, an optometrist who lives in Malaysia, started an online petition demanding that the Malaysian government take full responsibility and make itself liable for any problems that may arise from the release of the GM mosquitoes.

Giam told Xinhua by e-mail that he is concerned his country is being taken advantage of by groups in the West looking to make a profit.

"Why should a developing country bear the brunt of being the site of a field trial for releasing genetically modified mosquitoes?" he asked. "If anything, developing countries are least able to handle an emergency if something should go wrong with the release."

Giam said he worried that the GM mosquito could mutate and become resistant to current methods of eradication like pesticides.

"A controlled environment can never be the same as the real environment," he said. "Nobody can give an assurance or know what will or will not happen in the real environment."

But Kramer said Oxitec, which was spun off from Oxford University in 2002, is developing a technology that will benefit the developing world so "it's right and proper" that they be involved in the entire process.

"There is no market to make stack loads of money," she said. "It does not exist."

Oxitec, which receives partial funding for its SIT program from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, estimates governments that want the technology will have to pay roughly one to three U.S. dollars per person -- roughly the same as mosquito bed nets.

Currently, the Malaysian government spends 130 million U.S. dollars a year on trying to control mosquitoes and on tending to those infected with the dengue virus, according to Kramer, who cited a report to be released shortly.

Going after A. aegypti is the best approach to a quickly-spreading disease, said Kramer. Insecticides only kill the mosquitoes present at that very moment and many people do not want insecticide sprayed in their homes.

Despite a high awareness that trash easily becomes breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Kramer noted that "in no country are they managing to clean up the mosquitoes well enough to prevent the spread of dengue."

Source: Xinhua
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