Meet the African scientist whose gene-modified mosquitoes could end malaria: World Malaria Day


More than 600,000 Africans now have hope of evading death caused by malaria and millions on the continent can now dream of a life without malaria in just a few years to come.

This is because a new gene editing technology capable of manipulating targeted populations of malaria-producing mosquitoes has been introduced with far-reaching potential.

As the world marks World Malaria Day, GSW puts the spotlight on an African researcher whose invention could help eradicate malaria entirely in the world’s most affected region.

Watch this interview:

How does the gene drive technology work?

Through Gene Drive Technology, a lead investigator of Target Malaria in Burkina Faso Prof. Abdoulaye Diabaté and his team of researchers, have identified potential methods to genetically modify mosquitoes. This will alter their fertility and render them resistant to the Plasmodium parasites responsible for malaria.

In an interview with GSW’s Wonder Hagan, Professor Diabaté explained that by altering the reproductive capabilities of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, their population decreases. Alternatively, these mosquitoes are genetically engineered to resist Plasmodium, resulting in reduced malaria transmission and ultimately aiming for complete eradication.

When will Africa start seeing results?

The technology is anticipated to commence full implementation within a timeframe of four to five years, progressing through three phases. The first phase, initiated in Burkina Faso, involved the deployment of genetically modified non-gene drive sterile male mosquitoes. Despite mating with wild females, these specimens failed to yield any offspring.

“This was done intentionally to get scientific data to inform the next step, build capacity on the ground, test the regulatory system to make sure it's ready for the gene drive,” he said.

The second phase which is yet to be tested is expected to build on the first with the release of another batch of non-gene drive mosquitoes. This will be followed by the third and final phase where the gene drive technology will be rolled out.

Is this an improvement on treated bed nets and malaria vaccines?

The gene drive is expected to produce more sustainable results compared to other conventional tools like bed nets and insecticides. Although Prof. Diabaté acknowledges the successes clocked with the introduction of treated bed nets and in recent times the RTS,S/AS01, and R21/Matrix-M malaria vaccines, he maintains that factors including logistics and compliance may pose limitations to the sustainability and effeciency of these methods.

“Not just a single tool will be able to eliminate malaria in Africa. We are very happy and convinced that the vaccine will have a very big impact on reducing the death tolls and malaria cases in many places. But it might be very difficult to think that the vaccine will be able to eliminate completely malaria in Africa for several reasons, the logistics of deploying and the compliance. It's very good that we have the vaccines, and we have to celebrate because it is the first time, but still, we need to expand our toolbox so that we can include other things that can take care of some residual pockets of malaria transmission where the vaccine may not have the potential to reach all these people, he noted.

“With the gene drive, you don’t have to worry about that because really, when you release it in a public space somewhere, it is going to cover everybody,” he continued.

Will the new technology affect the ecosystem?

With rising concerns about the possible effects of the gene drive on the environment and the ecosystem, Prof. Diabaté indicated that extensive research is being conducted in that area to ensure the potential risks are identified and solutions proposed before the final rollout of the project. He also underscored the importance of regulation and stakeholder consent in ensuring the successful implementation of the program.

“There are so many other things that we have to solve first, that is the stakeholder activities to make sure that we have the public’s acceptance, and that really takes time and then we have the regulatory as well, because when it comes to gene drive, you release a mosquito in Burkina Faso, they don’t respect any human borders. We have to be very critical and look at all the potential risks that we could have and make sure that we have a very clear identification of these risks and if anything how do we mitigate them?".

What was your motivation?

Prof Diabaté, a victim of malaria himself, said he decided to pursue research to discover sustainable ways to eliminate the disease on the continent.

“All my life basically I’ve been experiencing malaria, several episodes, I can’t even tell you how many episodes. Everyone all my relatives, everybody that I know, they’ve all been through malaria episodes and I’m a father today, and I’ve been experiencing malaria through my kids. It’s made things very difficult so anything that can come and help is good really to take," he noted

Who is Prof Abdoulaye Diabaté?

Prof. Abdoulaye Diabaté joined Target Malaria in 2012 when he established Target Malaria Burkina Faso. He has since become a leader in malaria research and genetic approaches to malaria reduction in Africa. He returned to Burkina Faso in 2009, after studying at the University of Montpellier II in France in 2003 and pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship in 2005/2009 at the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA. He now works at the Research Institute in Health Sciences heading the medical entomology laboratory.

Professor Diabaté has many laurels to his name and was recently named one of the 10 global winners of the prestigious  Falling Walls  Science & Innovation Prize  2023.

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