You hate and very, very dangerous: mosquitoes are perhaps among the least popular animals in the world. Just on 6 October, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended mass use of the first malarial vaccine for children (here the article explaining what it is) which could be used in particular in sub-Saharan Africa and in other areas at risk. Today, however, it is possible to eliminate those most dangerous for humans thanks to a technique, the so-called gene drive or genetic control: talked about it during the 2021 edition of Tempo della Salute with its inventor Andrea Crisanti, director of the Department of Molecular Medicine of the University of Padua, and with Carlo Alberto Redi, Academician of the Lincei and president of the Ethics Committee of the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. Why intervene in such a definitive way on the future of an animal species it has not just bioethical implications.
Dangerous and hated
also true for a dangerous insect like the mosquito: due to the pathologies of which vector, such as the malaria, the dengue o la yellow fever, every year in the world about 800 thousand people die. There are therefore quite a few reasons to want to get rid of it, not just the itchy summer bites, and thanks to the technique developed by Professor Crisanti it would seem possible, in a not too distant future. It starts from a premise: Not that we want to get rid of all mosquitoes. There are around 3,500 species of mosquitoes and fortunately only a few transmit parasitic diseases such as malaria or others that cause diseases such as zika and dengue. So if I want to get rid of malaria I have to attack malaria. Traditionally this has been done with insecticides which have shown all their limits and dangers. These measures, which are apparently simple, require sustainability over time, require resources and political continuity. All this is missing today. Hence biotechnology, the idea of making mosquitoes themselves do this job. If we manage to modify the genetic characteristics of mosquitoes, we can theoretically create mosquitoes that do not reproduce or that do not transmit the infection.
The genetic mechanism
Professor Crisanti explains:We could speak of unnatural selection: the gene drive interferes with the mechanisms of genetic inheritance, exploiting particular genes that we could call “copy and paste” to accelerate the spread of other “target” genes in the population. In the case of mosquitoes you chose to increase the frequency of a gene that reduces egg laying by females: in a few generations the population decreases, because the sterility of the female insects prevents their propagation. The technique, on the other hand, has already been used on other animal species. On the other hand let us remember that in Sardinia, in the post-war period, the government and the Rockefeller Foundation carried out “experiments“Which led to the elimination of four species of Anopheles mosquitoes (the regional body for the fight against anopheles was created in Sardinia, active in the period between 1946 and 1950, ed). We ask the population: do you think they want to go back?
What are mosquitoes used for?
the question that, in the end, everyone asks. But a question that doesn’t make sense, because it already gives it a finalistic value and this does not hold up – underlined Professor Redi -. I declare my conflict of interest, for: coming from Pavia you will have already understood my position. evident that their reality to exist. Mosquitoes definitely have meaning. The reality that they exist is the point of questioning usl their role, this is undoubtedly. And the second question: what does it mean to find them in this reality? It is therefore important to confront each other in order to develop “scientific citizenship”, We give all the elements to do their science independently. The fundamental point that we face to a plasmodium vector animal species which carries a terrifying disease: malaria. We are talking about 3 millions of people who are at risk of contracting it, We are talking about over 400,000 deaths a year, of which 274 thousand among children (WHO data 2019, ed).
The experiments conducted so far show that the gene drive technique it seems sufficiently manageable and effective to allow to literally extinguish mosquitoes in a short time: in the controlled conditions of the laboratory and in the experiments in which we tried to recreate environments similar to those where mosquitoes normally live it was like this. One wonders if this is what we really want: it would be a drastic (and irreversible) interference on the processes of natural selection. Moreover this technique could theoretically be applied to other species, allowing us in fact to “guide” evolution, observes Redi. Do we have the right to do so? Perhaps even the duty, let’s discuss it – says Carlo Alberto Redi -. But it is a huge ecological responsibility and we must ask ourselves about the limits and the possibilities it implies: we must use these biotechnologies in full awareness of the risks and damage they could bring to other species, because intervening on one means modifying the ecosystem, and also positive possibilities because other species with these methods could be saved from extinction.
Who has to decide
But how to concretely address the issue? Today we live in the world of the millennium of science. Citizens have to decide, as long as they are properly informed. Decisions that affect our body, how we live, we have to make. We cannot wait for a regulatory agency to tell us this because it is still seen as an imposed decision, adds Carlo Alberto Redi. Professor Crisanti adds: The decision passes through two phases: one the acceptance of those who experience the technology and the consequences of the technology. I think he has to decide who has the problem because maybe he has evaluated all the options and decided that the solution is the one that works for them. We have avoided legislation, and I am speaking of Europe, on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) which is totally anachronistic. Faced with this, we have made genetically modified vaccines. We are faced with very advanced technology, but with a legislative framework from 50 years ago. I believe that the regulatory process must adapt to changing times and different social sensitivities.
Get informed and understand
In short, it is necessary to train and understand. This technology offers a lot of opportunities and clike all revolutionary things it generates a component of anxiety and fearFor the first time we have one available technology that leads man to interfere with the very engine of life, that is the selection process, underlined Professor Crisanti. For Carlo Alberto Redi there is no technology that should not be seen in a dual context: it can be used that we consider positive and scientific analysis can confirm it or negative. We think of electricity or even the same language. But responsibility must be taken for everyone. Small final survey, among the audience present in the room: who wants to get rid of mosquitoes? Hands raised, almost unanimously.
November 5, 2021 (change November 5, 2021 | 11:01 am)
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