BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

June 25, 2017

Research Roundup: Venom, technology for smart vector control & animals as a human health threat

Program Assistant
GHTC
PATH/Claire Suni

In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

Researchers at the University of Maryland are employing innovative techniques in their efforts to eradicate malaria. Their approach involves injecting spider and scorpion venom into already toxic fungi, in order to kill the malaria vector. By targeting the vector using this technique, scientists may be able to kill larger populations of disease-carrying and insecticide-resistant mosquitoes. The venom acts as a neurotoxin, and the fungus acts as the catalyst to transfer the toxin into the mosquito. The effects of this method were clear: First, the mosquito stopped feeding. Then, the neurotoxin killed the vector. While there are concerns about using venom in wild settings, the Environmnetal Protection Agency (EPA) has approved this method and has noted that neither the venom nor the fungus pose a threat to birds, mammals, or other insects.

Microsoft researcher Ethan Jackson sets up the high-tech trap for mosquitoes in Harris County, Texas. (AP)

Not all mosquitoes carry diseases—some are simply a nuisance. When it comes to vector control, methods such as insect traps trap and kill all mosquitoes indiscriminately. This makes identifying the species known to carry diseases from among hundreds of dead vectors quite difficult. However, new traps created by Microsoft have the capacity to scan each mosquito that enters the system. If the wings match the wings of a disease-carrying species, the system traps the mosquito in its own cell. This system correctly identifies disease-carrying vectors 90 percent of the time, thus making catching and identifying specific mosquito species much easier. The system is currently expensive, with each system costing several thousand dollars. However, scientists hope to drive the price down to a few hundred dollars to allow for worldwide distribution.

Researchers at EcoHealth Alliance studied viruses in animals to investigate which species pose the greatest threat to humans. The researchers found that about one-third of known animal viruses—about 200 viruses total—are zoonotic, or capable of animal-to-human transmission. The researchers then categorized which animals would most likely pose a threat to humans based upon how many of the zoonotic diseases affect each animal species, and which of those animals interact the most with humans. They found that rodents and non-human primates were the two most virally promiscuous creatures, with the highest chance of transmitting viruses to humans. 

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