May 22, 2018
Bill Gates is throwing his support behind the high-tech gene editing breakthrough, CRSPR, to help research techniques that could translate into the eradication of malaria worldwide. Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that is caused by a parasite, affects millions of people per year. According to the CDC, in 2016 there were 216 million worldwide cases of malaria, which resulted in an estimated 731,000 deaths. Almost a half a million of these deaths were children.
Gates, the founder of Microsoft and leading philanthropist, is known for his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation works with their partners worldwide to help reduce inequities in health by providing high-impact health products and services - including vaccines, drugs and diagnostics - in order to benefit the world's poorest communities. CRSPR
CRSPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), the genome-editing technology which has garnered the support of Gates, is a relatively new finding that has been developed in the past decade. This revolutionary technology allows for scientists to target specific stretches of genetic codes in order to edit DNA at its precise locations. What this is means is that researchers can specifically, permanently modify genes in living cells - essentially overriding normal biological processes. Practical applications for this technique have been explored all throughout science - from crop breeding to livestock. Benefits to humans and medications have been explored as well: CRSPR can be used to cure or prevent diseases of all kinds, including diabetes, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer's - even malaria. CRSPR and Malaria
CRSPR has been identified for its use to control the populations of malaria-infected mosquitos. This process alters the genes in the mosquitos, inducing infertility to reduce populations, or to alter the insects' ability to carry and pass on the malaria parasite. This discovery came at an opportune time when the global progress against this widespread, life-threatening disease had all but stalled out. A Controversial Approach
Gates' contributions toward the support of CRSPR technology on malaria has not been without controversy. Opponents of CRSPR state ethical concerns about this gene-modifying research, including questions about the long-term implications of its use on the earth's animals and other species. The implementation of these extremely powerful technologies in nature raises questions due to their unknown and irreversible impact on the ecosystem. Benefits Outweigh Risks
Gates believes that the benefits of using the CRSPR technology in the fight against malaria is worth it, however. He believes that the ethical concerns should not block the progress and that these legitimate concerns would need to be addressed in trials and research. Gates spoke at the Malaria Forum in London in early 2018, stating that the eradication of this disease would still take many years. He also maintained that the fight against malaria would need to employ both new and old tools - mosquito traps, vaccines, bed nets and gene tools - to end this vector-borne disease, which has been one of the top killers in human history. Through the use of high-tech methods, such as CRSPR, as well as the collection of genetic information and data, scientists are increasingly able to identify the evolving strains of the malaria-causing parasites.
"None of these (gene technology) constructs will actually wipe out the species," Gates said. "It will evolve back. After all, evolutionary pressures always push back."
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