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Anopheles mosquito
Anopheles mosquitoes are carriers for the malaria parasite. (CDC Photo / James Gathany)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has forged a partnership with Oxitec, a British mosquito control company, to develop mosquitoes that are genetically engineered to suppress malaria.

Oxitec’s latest project follows up on its work with Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that can spread a range of diseases including yellow fever, dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika fever — but not malaria. A different type of mosquito, Anopheles, is the carrier for malaria parasites.

Previously, Oxitec developed male Aedes mosquitoes that have been genetically engineered so that their female offspring don’t survive to adulthood.

The idea is that the second-generation females will never mature to the point of biting humans, cutting off the spread of disease. (Male mosquitoes don’t bite, but instead feed on flower nectar.) The genetically altered male population fizzles out after about 10 generations of reproduction.

Oxitec, a subsidiary of Intrexon Corp., has field-tested its “Friendly” Aedes mosquitoes in locales including Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands. The company is also working on getting the bugs cleared for use in the Florida Keys and Texas, although it’s facing some resistance.

The newly announced project will involve creating a similar “Friendly” strain of Anopheles albimanus mosquitoes for potential use in the Americas, eastern Africa and South Asia.

“With the support and partnership of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxitec is entering the fight against malaria with a powerful, innovative vector control technology,” Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen said today in a news release.

The Gates Foundation said it will provide nearly $4.1 million for the project.

Philip Welkhoff, director of the malaria program at the Gates Foundation, said Oxitec’s approach would complement other types of interventions being used to stop malaria’s spread.

“Vector control has played a critical role in reducing cases and deaths due to malaria over the past 15 years,” Welkhoff said. “With further progress stalled at present, continued innovation of new and transformational interventions is critical to realizing the goal of a world free of malaria.”

Oxitec aims to start the research project next month at its headquarters in Oxfordshire, England, with an end goal of completion in September 2020.

Correction for 8:38 a.m. PT June 21: This report has been corrected to reflect the fact that this type of partnership between the Gates Foundation and Oxitec is new. The foundation also supports anti-malaria efforts involving the Aedes mosquito, but those efforts focus on a different strategy that uses Wolbachia bacteria to reduce the bugs’ ability to transmit the disease. Oxitec did receive $5 million for its work with Aedes mosquitoes through a larger project that was funded by the Gates Foundation’s Global Grand Challenges initiative.

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