Microsoft founder Bill Gates endorsed the usage of a CRISPR/Cas9, a controversial but powerful new gene-editing tool, to develop genetically modified malaria-fighting mosquitoes.
While gene-editing isn't exactly new, CRISPR/Cas9 is the faster and cheaper alternative. It works like a pair of "molecular scissors" that can snip and replace sections of DNA, removing unwanted ones.
Despite its promises, scientists also warned of its potential dangers such as the unknown outcomes of cross-breeding among organisms and unintended mutations of genetically modified insects.
Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
In 2015, scientists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) used the groundbreaking gene-editing tool to develop a strain of mosquitoes that can quickly spread genes that block malaria through their offspring.
These genetically modified mosquitoes are capable of not only fighting malaria but also eliminating the disease ultimately and removing the insect's ability to transmit the virus to human hosts.
UCI's Anthony James said their research brings a "real promise" that the gene-editing technique can be used to eradicate the mosquito-borne disease.
Also in 2015, researchers from the Imperial College London (ICL) used a related gene editing technology called "gene drive" in developing modified Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes.
The gene drive ensures that the genetically modified traits the scientists tweaked will be carried onto the succeeding generations. This accelerated rate helps spread the modifications through the species population.
"Gene drives, I do think, over the next three to five years will be developed in a form that will be extremely beneficial. Of course, that makes it a key tool to reduce malaria deaths," said Gates.
Malaria By The Numbers
In 2015 alone, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated about 214 million malaria cases occurred globally that claimed 438,000 lives. The majority of the death cases linked to malaria in that year were children who lived in the African Region.
In the United States, the CDC said about 1,500 malaria cases are diagnosed yearly. The majority of the malaria cases in the country are linked to travel - either people who traveled to regions where malaria was transmitting locally or immigrants who returned to the United States.
Bill and his wife Melinda Gates have continuously provided resources into fighting malaria for years through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2014, they gave a $150 million grant for the development of malaria vaccines.
"We must remain committed to the eradication of malaria. Small steps won't get the job done. History shows that the only way to stop malaria is to end it forever," said Gates in 2014.