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Gene Drives to Fight Disease

With gene drives, researchers hope to engineer mosquitos to eradicate diseases like malaria, NPR reports.

Imperial College London's Andrew Hammond and his colleagues are using the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 to integrate the gene drive into mosquito embryos, NPR adds. That mosquito then passes on the drive to its offspring and the drive spreads throughout the mosquito population. But any female mosquitos with the drive are sterile as it carries mutations that prevent them from making eggs.

"If we can sterilize the females," Hammond says, we "can actually eliminate a whole mosquito population without affecting those mosquitoes that don't have the capability to transmit malaria." The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided the Imperial College London-based Target Malaria some $75 million in funding.

However, NPR notes that some critics worry that gene drives could spread out of check, have unintended consequences on delicate ecosystems, or fall into the wrong hands. A report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has called for more research before gene drives are used outside the lab. In addition, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding work to into ways to halt gene drives in their tracks. "If we introduce a gene drive into the environment, then how can we reverse that tool if it has an unintended consequence? Can we demonstrate that we can turn those gene drives off at will?" DARPA's Renee Wegrzyn asks NPR.

Still, Imperial College's Tony Nolan tells NPR that it might be worth the risk as half a million people die each year from malaria. "I think it's a worthwhile goal to investigate this technology," he adds.