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Marshall Lab receives Gates grant for genetics-based malaria mosquito control

Berkeley Public Health Associate Professor John Marshall, PhD, and Assistant Project Scientist Héctor Sánchez, PhD, have received an $800,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support their lab’s work in genetics-based malaria mosquito control.

Malaria, the most devastating mosquito-borne disease, poses a major public health burden throughout much of the world. Novel genetics-based tools that can be shown to be safe and effective would be transformative in eliminating the disease and the suffering it causes.

“Malaria continues to be exceptionally difficult to eliminate with currently-available tools,” said Marshall. “Insecticide-treated nets and antimalarial drugs have succeeded in reducing the African malaria burden by about a half, but their impact has stagnated in recent years and new tools are needed. There is now growing recognition that the most promising new tools for malaria elimination are vaccines and gene-edited mosquitoes.”

“Before gene-edited mosquitoes can be implemented in the field, a lot of groundwork is needed,” Marshall continued. “Most important is the community engagement and regulatory work; but another key dimension of the project is modeling these interventions to understand what might happen at the population level. In this project, we will assess alignment of gene-edited mosquitoes to target product profiles that describe the minimum requirements for the technology to be used.”

The funded work is a three-year project starting in July 2021. Thus far, Marshall, Sánchez and colleagues have developed a modeling framework, the Mosquito Gene Drive Explorer (MGDrivE). During the project period, researchers will continue to develop this software; develop standard operating procedures for monitoring and surveillance protocols; and address questions related to population suppression and modification of the major malaria mosquito species.

“This is a project that Dr. Marshall and I have been working toward for over four years now,” said Sánchez. “And it’s really exciting to have the support to help our work have real impact in the field. These new approaches to mosquito control could really be transformative for controlling a devastating global disease, and modeling these complex epidemiological systems is something that I find very rewarding.”

“Further down the line, monitoring and surveillance are expected to be cost-drivers for this technology, as the scale of implementation could potentially be regional,” said Marshall. “We will use modeling to design cost-effective monitoring and surveillance protocols to ensure that the technology is working as intended without negative effects.”