Even as the technology draws opposition from some environmental groups, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has doubled down on its investment in a project to genetically alter mosquitoes so that they cannot reproduce, the MIT Technology Review and Wall Street Journal report.
With its latest award of $35 million, the foundation has now invested a total of $75 million in the Target Malaria project, which is based at Imperial College, London. Using CRISPR gene-editing technology, the Target Malaria team has succeeded in installing a "gene drive" in a malaria-transmitting species of mosquito that renders females of the species sterile. If released in the wild, the genetically modified mosquitoes could eventually effect the eradication of most species of mosquito, which were linked to half a million deaths in 2015 through malaria and other diseases. The Gates Foundation funding will enable Target Malaria to prepare laboratories in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Uganda; lay the groundwork needed to seek regulatory approval of the technique; and train field staff. While Bill Gates has said the technology may be ready for field use within two years, Scott Miller, deputy director of the foundation's malaria team, told the Journal that release of the engineered mosquitoes into the wild is about a decade away.
Interest in gene drives has increased with the spread of the Zika virus, and researchers at Texas A&M University and Virginia Tech are developing a version that would fatally transform a Zika-transmitting species of mosquito by causing only males of the species to develop. However, some conservation groups have raised concerns that such genetically driven "bio-control" is inherently unsafe and would open a Pandora's box of ethical issues. In June, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a report that organisms modified by gene drive aren't ready to be released into the wild, while MIT Media Lab professor Kevin Esvelt has argued that gene-drive research should be more transparent and open to public input.
Gates Foundation spokesperson Bryan Callahan told the MIT Technology Review that the foundation's latest grant to the project will help it "explore the potential development of other constructs, as well as to start mapping out next steps for biosafety, bioethics, community engagement, and regulatory guidance."