The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) in collaboration with the Imperial College London will soon be introducing genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in the country to stop the spread of an invasive species that transmits malaria.

Kemri researchers say they aim at leveraging genetic approaches, specifically gene drive, to control the spread of malaria .

Last week in a meeting that followed joint grant submissions by the two institutions for research and innovation funding, Dr Martin Bundi, the acting Deputy Director of Research and Development at Kemri emphasied the critical need to leverage advanced technologies to combat malaria.

The Centers for Disease Control GM mosquitoes are mass-produced in a laboratory to carry two types of genes.

They include a self-limiting gene that prevents female mosquito offspring from surviving to adulthood and a fluorescent marker gene that glows under a special red light. This allows researchers to identify GM mosquitoes in the wild.

GM mosquitoes produced in a lab lay eggs, which carry the self-limiting and fluorescent marker genes.

Mosquito control professionals then release GM mosquito eggs into a particular area.

When the eggs hatch, they develop into adult mosquitoes. These mosquitoes mate with wild females. The genes are then passed on to offspring.

The expected result of using GM mosquitoes is that the numbers of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in an area decreases.

Experts, however, point out that releasing GM mosquitoes is not intended to stop an ongoing disease outbreak. Instead, GM mosquitoes are meant to help prevent disease outbreaks.

“Releasing GM mosquitoes over several months can reduce the number of a specific mosquito species such as Ae. Aegypti,” the CDC assures, noting that reducing numbers of mosquitoes that can spread germs can help reduce the chance of an outbreak starting.

“The best way to prevent disease outbreaks is to control mosquitoes before an outbreak happens,” CDC highlights

According to Prof Christophides George and ProF Windbichler Nikolai from Imperial College, malaria is an endemic disease in Kenya and there is a need to control it.

“It is therefore important to embrace new technology that can assist in controlling it,” stated Dr Bundi.

He expressed confidence in gene drives and acknowledged the contributions of the entomology and vector control departments. Dr Bundi also highlighted Kemri’s openness to collaborations that enhance vector control and improve public health.

Prof George highlighted the progress that Imperial College has made in developing genetically modified mosquitoes, which are now ready for field testing in Kenya.

He praised Kenya for its conducive environment for such research, citing the robust intellectual capacity of institutions like Kemri and the presence of a GM framework.

“The GM mosquitoes have shown promising results in laboratory settings, and the next step is to evaluate their effectiveness in the field,” he highlighted.

Dr Damaris Matoke-Muhia, acting deputy director of Biotechnology Programs at Kemri, said the institute has ample land suitable for the large-scale field tests required by gene drives.

She also emphasised the potential for the partnership to extend into capacity-building initiatives, including exchange programmes and training opportunities for students and scientists at the Kemri Graduate School (KGS).

According to Kemri, their collaborative effort marks a significant step towards utilising cutting-edge genetic research to tackle malaria, a disease that continues to pose a major public health challenge in the country.

The joint efforts come after last year, during the ‘Devolution Conference 2023’ which marked 10 years of devolution in Kenya, a discussion at the conference on health and young people shone light on malaria in the country and the need for sustained focus.

in Kenya, a discussion at the conference on health and young people shone light on malaria in the country and the need for sustained focus.

According to the Zero Malaria Campaign Coalition, a driving force for sustainable change bringing together leading actors in the fight against malaria and champions the ‘Zero Malaria Starts With Me’ movement in the country, between 2010-2020, Kenya reduced the prevalence of malaria by nearly 50 per cent.

Despite the efforts to eradicate the disease, malaria is still a leading cause of death especially among children under five.

The disease also impacts the efficiency of county health systems as approximately 15 per cent of all non-admitted hospital visits are due to the disease.

Speaking to Healthy Nation in an interview , Dr Willis Akhwale, special advisor, Kenya’s End Malaria Council Kenya, said: “You need policy, you need clear strategy, you need to monitor what you are getting, but then most important you need to implement what needs to be done.”

Dr Akhwale, who served as the presidential advisor on malaria to former President Uhuru Kenyatta, said the country needs very clear, informed policies and strategies to eradicate malaria.

“And over a period of time, you need to continue to monitor some of your key indicators to know whether you are having a public health impact and whether you are saving lives, and that’s even more important.”

He explained that the governments’ Kenya Malaria Social Behaviour Change Strategy 2022-2027 and the Kenya Malaria Elimination Implementation Plan underpin the commitment to a comprehensive approach towards a malaria-free Kenya, with the overarching aim to improve the health and well-being of Kenyans and reach zero malaria within a generation.

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