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'Breakthrough' of the week: Flying syringes

March 19, 2010 - 12:29 -- Bart G.J. Knols

In the early 1990s, when scientists first came up with a radical new idea to engineer mosquitoes that would no longer be capable of transmitting pathogens, some thought of an even more fantastic application. Use mosquitoes to vaccinate people. Silence followed until now...

Numerous websites this week report a 'breakthrough' in the vaccinator (that's how the engineered mosquitoes are called) story now that Japanese scientists led by Prof. Yoshida of Jichi Medical University in Tochigi engineered mosquitoes to deliver a vaccine against Leishmania parasites.

UK Telegraph: '...could be a radical new way of tackling malaria.' 'Experts believe this' it adds.

Indian Express: '...providing a new strategy for biological control over malaria.'

The press immediately forgot the difficult word 'Leishmania' and turned Yoshida's work into a new solution for malaria. The article was supposedly published in Insect Molecular Biology, but I could not find it...

The idea was already coined in the early 1990s by Bob Sinden (Imperial College) and Julian Crampton (Liverpool), who actually filed a patent for exactly the same idea on 9 October 2003 (# US2003/0192067 A1), as a follow-up to three earlier patents, the first of which was filed in 1997. Read the attachment below.

Strangely, Sinden, when interviewed by Science talked about the prospects of Yoshida's work as 'No regulatory agency would sign off on that. Releasing the mosquitoes would also mean vaccinating people without their informed consent, an ethical no-no.'  He was interviewed by Martin Enserink, who told me that Sinden seemed pretty outspoken about the 'no-go'. I agree, but why then file such a patent and renew it three times?

For now, Yoshida told Science that he believes his approach will be 'unacceptable' to policy makers and the public alike, though the press puts this away as 'ethical hurdles that need to be taken'. Prof. David O'Brochta added an interesting dimension: Maybe it wouldn't work for people, but we could consider vaccinating animals this way, since 'they don't need to give their consent'. I wonder how animal rights organisations will respond to this line of thought.

Like the recent laser canon story, the world is again made to believe that a solution for malaria lies around the corner. Both scientists and the press create false hopes for millions of people around the world suffering from debilitating mosquito-borne infections. 


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Mark Benedict's picture
Submitted by Mark Benedict on

Use of mosquitoes (or other biting insects) to deliver vaccines in veterinary applications does not appear to be an ethically acceptable avenue. If humans are also exposed to the same insects, would they not need to give informed consent? The fact that the target of the intervention is an animal seems irrelevant. The question is who will be exposed? Which vectors of significance to animal health never bite/feed upon humans?

I'll blog about this further when/if I receive a PDF from the authors.

Mark Benedict

In 1925 Dr. Charles A.R. Campbell wrote his book "Bats, Mosquitos and Dollars". In it he showed that the best way to get rid of malaria, is to build bat towers. The bats living there will eat the mosquitos, while the guano, their very fertile excrements, can be easily gathered underneath these towers, and be sold to finance the whole set-up!