A research team in Kenya and the UK has discovered a way to protect mosquitoes from being infected by malaria, thereby preventing them from becoming carriers of the disease and infecting people. The new discovery is rooted in a malaria-blocking microbe called Microsporidia MB, which was discovered in the guts and genitals of mosquitoes studied on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya.
Of the mosquitoes carrying the microbe, not a single one was found to be carrying the malaria parasite. Further study revealed that the microbe did, in fact, give mosquitoes protection from the disease.
Dr. Jeremy Herren, of the International Center of Insects Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, told the BBC, “The data we have so far suggest it is 100% blockage, it’s a very severe blockage of malaria. It will come as quite a surprise. I think people will find that a real big breakthrough.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were about 228 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2018 and 405,000 people died, mostly children in Africa.
The microbe is either believed to boost a mosquito’s immune system, enabling it to fight off malaria, or have effects on the insect’s metabolism, making it inhospitable to the malaria parasite.
Microsporidia MB was only naturally found in five percent of insects studied, and 40 percent of mosquitos in a given region would need to be infected with the microbe to have any real impact on the spread of malaria. Now, researchers are exploring ways to infect as many mosquitoes with the microbe as possible.
One proposed method is releasing microsporidia spores on a large scale in a region, in hopes of infecting a large mosquito population. Another avenue would be infecting male mosquitos in a lab, and then releasing them into the wild to infect females during mating.
According to Professor Steven Sinkins of the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, “It’s a new discovery. We are very excited by its potential for malaria control. It has enormous potential.”