"GMO" isn't a dirty word: Genetically modified insects could save lives, but first humans have to be convinced

When it comes to altering genes to eradicate disease and pestilence, science needs good PR to fight misconceptions

Published March 30, 2017 8:58AM (EDT)

An Aedes Aegypti mosquito   (Afp/getty Images)
An Aedes Aegypti mosquito (Afp/getty Images)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

For years scientists have tinkered with mosquito genes to try to eradicate the crippling spread of diseases like malaria. But today new gene-editing technology has heightened the potential for helping hundreds of millions of impoverished people worldwide who are ravaged by the pathogen these tiny killers spread.

At the forefront of this research is Bana, a village of 1,000 people in Burkina Faso, one of several sub-Saharan hot spots for the spread of malaria, a preventable disease that kills nearly 450,000 people a year in some of the world’s poorest places.

If all goes as planned, in a few years Bana will become the first place where an organism will be released into the wild equipped with a “gene drive.” Essentially, it's a hacked strand of DNA that in this case causes the offending species of mosquito to produce far fewer females (male mosquitoes don’t bite) or prevent them from reproducing at all. The project is backed by the local Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Sante, Target Malaria and Imperial College London.

“The potential for gene drive technology is very significant,” Target Malaria, an initiative backed with $70 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote in December in an open letter to the Convention on Biological Diversity in a successful bid to prevent a moratorium on gene drives (that had been brought on by critics). “It is a novel tool which may enable interventions that are durable, cost-effective, and highly efficacious, complementing existing efforts to improve human health and environmental sustainability.”

This effort is underpinned by a recently discovered bioengineering technique, called Crispr, which enables scientists to go into the cells of any living thing and remove a segment of the organism’s genetic code and replace it with a modified version of the DNA clip. The tool, which could be used to eliminate genetic diseases, increase agriculture output and target viruses that kill millions every year, has the potential to radically improve human progress.

But for many people, the idea of hacking nature’s evolutionary forces to create bespoke organisms that do our bidding sounds ominous, more so because what most people know about genetic modification comes from what giant multinational corporations like Monsanto do with the science, like allegedly poisoning the world with chemicals sprayed on genetically modified crops grown with copyrighted seeds.

This has created a PR challenge for scientists who work with nonprofit organizations to try to instill confidence with communities that bioengineering isn’t all about global corporate conquest or outsiders imposing their mysterious projects on them. Additionally, since gene drives like the one proposed in sub-Saharan Africa would spread over international borders, governments and other communities must also be on board.  

“You want to actually approach people and say, ‘Hey, are you interested in this and can we work together on it?’" Kevin Esvelt, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology biochemist, told Salon. “At the same time, because we’re starting with this trust deficit, if you even use the words ‘genetically modified’ together, people’s immediate reaction is ‘Monsanto; this is bad.’”

Esvelt has emerged as both a proponent of gene drives and a leading proponent of strong community engagement in scientific projects like these. He’s part of a team that is studying a “daisy drive,” a more targeted gene drive technique that prevents altered genes from spreading indefinitely. Separately, to help eradicate the spread of Lyme disease in Nantucket, Massachusetts, he has proposed editing the DNA of mice (involved with the infection of ticks) to cut off the transmission of the insect-borne pathogen to humans.

The Nantucket Board of Health has been conducting community outreach efforts over the past year to ensure that the public is not only well informed of the proposal but also essentially in charge of whether the project even takes place. So far, the public reception in Nantucket to these efforts has been positive, despite the occasional dissenter who is wary of all things GMO.

Like the scientists in Nantucket, researchers in Burkina Faso have been spending a lot of their time doing essentially the same thing, with the additional challenges of engaging with remote developing-world communities whose language lacks words for “gene” and “DNA.” Today locals in Bama have gone from misunderstanding how malaria is spread (many had believed diet to be the cause) to participating in the research.

“When we introduced the idea, we told them, ‘We’re not going to do this unless you want it, and what’s more we’re not going to run this project; you need to run this project,’” Evelt said about his outreach efforts in Nantucket. “‘It would be nonprofit; everything would be open; all the science would be open; all the finances would be open. It would be yours, not ours.’ Technology has never really been introduced in this way; it’s never been about what the people want; it’s been about making a buck for the corporation developing the technology.”

After years of genetically modified organisms being a catchall dirty word, researchers of the lifesaving benefits of genetic engineering are starting to realize that the work in the lab is beneficial only if the people who benefit from it are included at nearly every stage of the process.

By Angelo Young

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Dna Genetically Modified Gmo Health Lyme Disease Malaria Mosquitoes Science Ticks Wellness