An aedes aegypti mosquito. Photo courtesy VectorBase.org

An international team of scientists led by biologists at UC San Diego has synthetically engineered mosquitoes to halt the transmission of the dengue virus.

The research team describes details of the achievement in Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the insects that spread dengue in humans, in an article published Thursday in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

Researchers in Associate Professor Omar Akbari’s lab worked with colleagues at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to identify a broad spectrum human antibody for dengue suppression. They then designed the antibody “cargo” to be synthetically expressed in female mosquitoes, which spread the dengue virus.

“Once the female mosquito takes in blood, the antibody is activated and expressed—that’s the trigger,” said Akbari. “The antibody is able to hinder the replication of the virus and prevent its dissemination throughout the mosquito, which then prevents its transmission to humans. It’s a powerful approach.”

Akbari said the engineered mosquitoes could spread the antibody throughout wild disease-transmitting mosquito populations.

“It is fascinating that we now can transfer genes from the human immune system to confer immunity to mosquitoes. This work opens up a whole new field of biotechnology possibilities to interrupt mosquito-borne diseases of man,” said coauthor James Crowe Jr., director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center in Nashville.

According to the World Health Organization, dengue virus threatens millions of people in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Severe dengue is a leading cause of serious illness and death among children in many Asian and Latin American countries.

Infecting those with compromised immune systems, dengue victims suffer flu-like symptoms, including severe fevers and rashes. Serious cases can include life-threatening bleeding. Currently no specific treatment exists and thus prevention and control depend on measures that stop the spread of the virus.

“This development means that in the foreseeable future there may be viable genetic approaches to controlling dengue virus in the field, which could limit human suffering and mortality,” said Akbari, whose lab is now in the early stages of testing methods to simultaneously neutralize mosquitoes against dengue and a suite of other viruses such as Zika, yellow fever and chikungunya.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.