NEW DELHI: India accounts for 4% of all malaria cases in the world. In 2017, 435,000 people died in India due to malaria, including 266,000 children under five. India is one of the signatories to World health Organization’s global malaria eradication programme that strives to reduce malaria mortality rates by at least 90% by 2030. In reality, we are far from getting to that point, said Prof. Suresh Subramani, global director, Tata Institute for Genetics and Society.

As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), India spends much less than other countries on healthcare—only 1.3% of GDP between 2008 and 2015. Meanwhile, mosquitoes have become more resistant to insecticides and pesticides.

Subramani is of the opinion that the problem can be addressed using new gene editing technologies for “population replacement", which allows scientists to engineer mosquitoes by cutting the DNA at a particular point using molecular scissors, making them incapable of transmitting malaria parasites.

Until now, all vaccines developed for malaria have been focused on humans. What we’re trying to do now instead is immunize the mosquito itself so that it can’t transmit the malaria, adds Subramani.

When the mosquito that is engineered to have immunity to malarial parasites mates with other mosquitoes, it transmits that information so that all its progeny will have the edited genes. This will replace the population that could cause malaria with a population that cannot cause malaria.

Subramani points out that this is new technology; so, a careful assessment of the types of risks and how to manage them is required. These are conversations that are happening all around the world including here in India. The technology is only seven years old and has shown great promise for one application in public health. It holds a lot of promise for other applications as well.

Antimicrobial resistance is a global problem as scientists have run out of new ways of creating antibiotics. Such resistance to antibiotics could also be potentially reversed by these technologies.

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