SEATTLE — A new technology called “clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats”, otherwise known as CRISPR, has the ability to provide relief through gene editing for impoverished communities at risk of Malaria.
In 2015 alone, Malaria affected 214 million people worldwide and caused almost 440,000 deaths. Ninety percent of these deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of people living in poverty increased from 287 million to 388 million from 1990 to 2012. Conversely, the U.S. has seen an average of 1,500 cases per year, with such cases in 2011 resulting in just five deaths.
CRISPR is a biotechnology originating from a natural process which bacteria have traditionally used to disable viruses. This naturally-occurring tool can target an area of viral DNA, slice it, and render it ineffective in transmitting disease. This uncanny precision in cutting specific DNA sequences can also be artificially engineered to do everything from combating cancer to re-engineering commercial crops without the use of GMO technology.
However, some scientists have been re-programming this naturally-occurring mechanism to combat malaria. Anthony James at the University of California, Irvine is using CRISPR to redesign the DNA of the mosquitoes that carry malaria – Anopheles gambiae. James has been able to produce mosquitoes that are incapable of spreading malaria to humans.
James can also program this trait into a dominant genetic trait, allowing it to be easily spread to all offspring in the wild. The DNA of wild mosquito populations would be permanently changed, and this could relegate malaria to the diseases of the past. This is one of the many ways that CRISPR technology is capable of reducing poverty, yet there is not unanimous consensus to move forward with research. Some critics believe that unforeseen effects of gene editing could be disastrous.
James, however, also sees a risk in waiting too long to move forward. “There are certainly risks associated with releasing insects that you have edited in a lab…But I believe the dangers of not doing it are far greater,” he said. The consequences of taking no action could be numerous and severe, from ongoing child mortality to the economic damage from an impaired labor force.
Estimates by the World Health Organization place current spending on the battle against malaria at $12 billion per year. Some groups estimate that a well-organized public health campaign could eradicate malaria at a cost of $4 billion per year using non-CRISPR methods. Countries like Paraguay, Costa Rica and Morocco were able to reduce the incidence of malaria to zero between 2000 and 2014. It is not as if a cure does not exist, or that the disease spreads despite all efforts to stop it. Rather, it is a question of how many resources will be used for this effort.
This is a familiar pattern for those who are impoverished, and who are more susceptible to treatable diseases like malaria. The tools to solve this problem exist, both the conventional and the new techniques such as CRISPR gene editing. However, if resources are continually delayed for those who need them most, malaria will continue to cause widespread damage in the lives of those who are already among the most vulnerable.
– Patrick Tolosky