Researchers make strides in stopping malaria's spread

Scientist Angray Kang and his colleagues at Westminster University in London have found promising results in their attempts to genetically engineer a fungus to kill the malaria parasite that is carried by mosquitoes.

In lab experiments, mosquitoes exposed to the fungus demonstrated a sharp drop in their levels of the malaria parasite. Kang said that the same process of genetic modification could also be used on other insect-spread diseases like West Nile virus and dengue, the Associated Press reports.

"This is very exciting research," Andrew Read, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University, who has worked on similar projects, said, according to the Associated Press. "It tells us that if you can't find something in nature to do what you want, you can just make it."

Read said that using the altered fungus might be less environmentally invasive than other genetic approaches like the creation of mutant mosquitoes that are resistant to the parasite.

Kang and his colleagues found that mosquitoes exposed to the fungus had 85 percent lower levels of the malaria parasite than normal, according to the AP. When they added a scorpion toxin to the experiment, levels of the malaria parasite dropped by 97 percent.

Kang’s experiment involved inserting a human antibody against malaria into a common fungus found in soil. The spores from the fungus burrow into the mosquito, invade its circulatory system and keep the parasites from reaching the salivary glands of the mosquito.

"The mosquito can be infected by malaria, but it can't pass it onto humans," Kang said, according to the AP.

There are some worries, however, about the implications of releasing these genetically-modified organisms into the environment.

"The release of any genetically modified organism into the environment runs the risk that it may have wider impacts than just its target," Pete Riley, the campaign director of GM Freeze, a U.K.-based advocacy group, said, according to the Associated Press. "Nature has a pretty cunning way of getting around everything we throw at it.”