Part of ‘master plan’: Researchers receive grant to fund research on malaria

Photo of malaria research
John Marshall/Courtesy
The Marshall Lab at UC Berkeley received an $800,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for research on genetics-based malaria mosquito control. Surveilling existing mosquito populations will also be part of the work.

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Early this month, The Marshall Lab at UC Berkeley received an $800,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund its research on genetics-based malaria mosquito control.

The Marshall Lab is one of many teams playing a part in the Gates Foundation’s decades-long “master plan” to eradicate malaria, according to associate professor John Marshall, the project’s principal investigator. Based on data from the World Health Organization, malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people a year.

The lab has focused on malaria prevention ever since it opened its doors in 2015, publishing work about mosquito intervention and control mechanisms related to genetic mathematical modeling.

“If you have a drug to control malaria or a mosquito net, then how that is implemented on a continental scale is more than a problem of having the intervention itself — you need to think about the numbers involved,” Marshall said.

Marshall compared mosquitoes to humans in that they have similar genetic makeups. He said some mosquito genes can be altered to either prevent disease transmission to humans or reduce rates of mosquito reproduction.

Marshall’s team plans to apply its Mosquito Gene Drive Explorer, which simulates releases of genetically modified mosquitoes into habitats, to aid fellow researchers funded by the Gates Foundation. With the system, researchers can identify the efficacy of systems for reducing cases of malaria in order to pinpoint which characteristics of gene constructs can be prioritized to most efficiently suppress the disease.

The project will also aim to measure the progression of mosquito populations across landscapes in order to measure the effects of mosquito prevention methods such as insecticide or nets. Marshall expects this will be the most costly aspect of the project.

“This is paramount to disease elimination campaigns… given limited resources in developing countries,” said assistant project scientist Héctor Manuel Sánchez Castellanos in an email. “The analysis of human-mosquito interactions would better equip us to make more informed decisions on resource allocation in different disease-transmission scenarios.”

Sánchez grew up in Mexico, adding that it has been “historically burdened” by dengue, another virus transmitted by mosquitoes. He noted that working on the project and approaching a “cost-effective” solution to mosquito disease transmission is one of the highlights of his scientific career.

With support from the grant, which lasts for three years, the team will execute computational resources to develop target product profiles and inform monitoring and surveillance on mosquito populations.

“We hope this research helps driving forward the idea that these technologies could be a game-changer in the way we fight back mosquito-borne diseases,” Sánchez said in the email. “If used correctly, gene editing constructs developed by our collaborators can drastically change the lives of people in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical regions of the world.”

Contact Lauren Huang at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @Laurenhuang72.