It sounds vaguely like something from a horror movie, but it's for a good cause — scientists are now using mosquitoes like tiny flying syringes in the hopes they can deliver life-saving malaria vaccines.
Last week, NPR reported that clinical trial participants put their arms inside mesh containers filled with 200 mosquitoes for the experiment, and the result was gnarly. One participants entire forearm was covered in red, raised blisters that looked like chemical burns.
Photos might be worth a thousand words — NPR's are worth peeping, but only if you're not squeamish — but the study about the new vaccination method is just as valuable. A team of researchers from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the National Institutes of Health and other institutions published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine at the end of August, giving a peek into the method behind the madness.
The team loaded the mosquitoes with genetically modified parasites called Plasmodium falciparum. While others have tried to create malaria vaccines with parasites before, this is the first time researchers used CRISPR to modify the parasites to carry malaria without getting people sick.
"We use the mosquitoes like they're 1,000 small flying syringes," University of Washington, Seattle researcher Sean Murphy told NPR of the research.
During the study, 14 of 26 total participants were exposed to malaria, and half of them contracted the illness. That suggests that the technique is currently about 50 percent effective, so there's room for improvement.
Counterintuitively, researchers told NPR the goal isn't to release huge numbers of mosquitoes that inoculate against malaria instead of spreading it — an intriguing proposition, to be sure, but one that would raise deep questions about bioethics and medical consent.
Instead, they said, they're just exploring a potentially cost effective method of developing and distributing vaccines. Odd, for sure — but considering that malaria mortality in Africa has been worse than COVID-19 mortality during the pandemic, it's well worth the effort.
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