New Study Reveals Public Resistance to Use of Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes for Disease Control

QI affiliate Cinnamon Bloss is the lead author on a new study, published today in JAMA, that found the use of genetically engineered mosquitoes is viewed negatively by those with strong opinions on the subject, with those opposed citing reasons of government and industry mistrust. Photo by Charlie Neuman/UT San Diego/Copyright 2013 San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. © U-T San Diego/ Live News

A recent study has shown that among people with strong opinions on the use of genetically engineered mosquitoes, most view the technology negatively and overwhelmingly cite reasons of government and industry mistrust.

The study, which appears in today’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), analyzed public comments from a proposed field trial in Florida that seeks to control disease with genetically engineered mosquitoes. The research was led by Cinnamon Bloss, an associate professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, along with colleagues Justin Stoler of the University of Miami, Matthew Bietz of UC Irvine, and Kimberley Brouwer and Cynthia Cheung, also of UC San Diego.

“Most studies investigating public attitudes toward genetically engineered mosquitoes for control of infectious disease have focused on other countries where mosquito-borne disease is more common,” said Bloss, who is also affiliated with the Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute. “Unfortunately, due to climate change and other factors, the risks of such diseases here in the U.S. are increasing, and therefore we were interested in gauging U.S. public response in a more systematic way than has been done previously.”

Using records obtained from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Bloss and her colleagues assessed public comments from a trial proposed for the town of Key Haven, Florida, which – despite robust mosquito control – had experienced a dengue fever outbreak in 2009 that infected more than 80 people in the region. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) then began exploring the use of new ways of controlling Aedes aegypti, the mosquitoes that spread dengue and other diseases.

FKMCD partnered with British-based biotech company Oxitec to propose the introduction of a genetically engineered version of the Aedes aegypti mosquito designed to be sterile and thereby suppress the mosquito population. The FKMCD tentatively agreed for the area to serve as a test site for a field trial of these mosquitoes, and in 2014 a formal proposal for the trial was submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The plan was met with substantial resistance from some vocal community members concerned about potential risks to human health and the environment, with some holding up protest signs that read “No consent!”. “People are understandably concerned about a technology with respect to which the risks and benefits are difficult to establish prior to actual deployment,” said Bloss.

In March of 2016, following a two-year review of the proposed trial, the FDA reported that the trial had a “Preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact” – in other words, the release of these genetically engineered mosquitoes likely would not have a negative effect on humans or the region’s ecosystem.

This report was posted publicly, and between March and May of 2016, the public was invited to comment. It was these comments that Bloss and her group requested via the FOIA request. Because individual informed consent isn’t possible in this type of public health intervention, the researchers were motivated to better understand public attitudes and concerns related to the use of the technology. The comments – which came from nearly every state in the country – also represented a chance to inform understanding of U.S. public response to the use of genetically modified mosquitoes.

The researchers’ assessment of the community response revealed that despite the FDA’s conclusion that the proposed trial was unlikely to be harmful, roughly 75% of the 2,624 comments were in opposition to the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes, 22% were supportive and 3% were neutral.

“This work suggests that public understanding of science is driven not just by knowledge of facts but also by individuals’ trust in scientific authorities,” said Bietz.

The researchers also extracted the major themes from the comments and found that common topics raised were concerns about ecological safety, human health implications, concerns about genetically modified organisms generally, and mistrust of government or industry. Most notably, the team found that views on human health and government/industry mistrust differed greatly between those opposing versus those supporting the trial. Those opposed were much more likely to raise issues of mistrust, and those supportive were more likely to comment on benefits for human health.

The researchers were also able to link the comments to census data and found that opposition to the trial was more common in rural communities, communities with lower average household incomes, and lower average house values.

In November of 2016, a measure to move forward with the proposed trial was added to Florida’s general election ballot in the form of two nonbinding referendums, one for Key Haven and one for all of Monroe County, where Key Haven is located. The vote unsurprisingly did not pass in Key Haven, but Monroe County as a whole voted in favor of the mosquito trial. The trial was subsequently moved to another town within the county. At this point, the FKMCD is considering alternative sites for the trial.

“It’s important to note that this study does not reflect a representative sample of the entire population,” said Bloss. “However, the fact that the vocal minority who have expressed views on this topic have influenced whether and where field trials may go forward, suggests it is really critical to understand those views and respond to the concerns raised.”

Bloss also emphasized the foundational role of public trust in the success of public health interventions. “When public trust is diminished, it becomes difficult to move forward.” In order to build that essential trust, Bloss and her colleagues recommend that studies continue to focus on local population, and that researchers should not only investigate public perception of the technology that governments or industry are proposing but also take the time to delve deeper into why communities may have these concerns.

DARPA funds UC Gene drive research against mosquito-borne diseases

Feeding female Anopheles gambiae mosquito, a known carrier of malaria. (CDC/James Gathany) Bradley J. Fikes Contact Reporter

A genetic technology developed by the University of California to fight malaria will be extended to other mosquito-borne diseases threatening the United States, under a $14.9 million federal grant.

The technology, called gene drive or active genetics, was developed at UC San Diego. It was shown to work on mosquitoes in a collaboration between UC San Diego and UC Irvine scientists.

 Gene drive is now being studied for use in India under a $70 million grant from a philanthropic foundation there.

UC Riverside joins UC San Diego and UC Irvine in the new effort, using the same technology. It’s led by UCR’s Omar Akbari and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Under the grant, gene drive will be studied for defenses against Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, all carried by various mosquito species.

UC San Diego scientists Ethan Bier and Valentino Gantz were the first to demonstrate a working gene drive system in insects, using fruit flies. They used the hot genetic editing technology known as CRISPR to engineer a self-replicating gene.

They teamed up with Anthony James at UC Irvine to make the system work in mosquitoes.

Gene drive enables man-made genes to be pushed into a population. The genes copy themselves from one chromosome in a pair to the other, so the offspring of a gene drive-equipped mosquito and one without it will inherit two of the genes.

 Theoretically, such self-propagating genes could rapidly come to dominate a population. But questions remain whether it will work in nature — the mosquitoes have only been tested in tightly sealed labs — and whether the technology might present any dangers.

UCI mosquito project receives $2 million from Gates Foundation to fight malaria

UCI Professor Anthony James in Irvine on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. James, a vector biologist, will lead a multimillion-dollar effort to cultivate new strains of mosquitoes to fight malaria in Africa. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Orange County Register/SCNG)

By COURTNEY PERKES I  Orange County Register

PUBLISHED: May 9, 2017 at 5:19 pm I UPDATED: May 9, 2017 at 7:13 pm
UC Irvine has received $2 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to genetically modify a species of mosquito found in Africa so that it can no longer spread malaria.

The work, led by molecular biologist Anthony James, is expected to be completed within three years. Then, the altered mosquitoes could be released for the first time in a trial to see if they reduce the spread of the deadly disease that kills more than 400,000 people a year, many of them children in sub-Saharan Africa.
“This is another big step,” James said Tuesday. “It brings us that much closer to trying it in the field.”
Malaria is caused by parasites that infect mosquitoes, who then transmit the disease to humans through bites. According to the World Health Organization, despite decades of intense effort, there is no approved vaccine, though clinical trials are ongoing.

In 2011, James’ lab genetically engineered the Anopheles stephensi species of mosquito, which spreads malaria in India’s urban areas, with genes that made it resistant to malaria.
Four years later, in a collaboration with UC San Diego, scientists used a gene­ editing technology to insert the genes, which were then passed on to 99 percent of the mosquitoes’ offspring who were hatched in the lab.
The UCI Malaria Initiative will now tackle Anopheles gambiae, which transmit malaria in many parts of Africa. James said the technology must be adapted to that species, which he compared to building a different brand of car. ‘We’re fairly confident we can,” James said. “I think the development will go fairly quickly.”

The Gates Foundation has made malaria a top priority, according to its website. In a statement, the foundation said it was pleased that the UO initiative is developing novel approaches to vector control.

“Eliminating malaria will require new tools to stop transmission of the parasite. This integrated approach will help ensure that discoveries made in the lab make their way to the field,” the statement said.
James said that after the engineering is completed, public health and environmental regulatory agencies, as well as community members, would have to give approval to release the mosquitoes into an area infected with malaria. They would then mate with the native mosquitoes and pass along their genetic modification.

He expects a trial would cost $25 million and within a year or two it would be clear if the mosquitoes were quelling the spread of disease.  But he said he’s not sure if the project will be accepted, noting that measles still spreads in the U.S. because people don’t get vaccinated.  ”The science may be well ahead of society’s ability to adapt to that and I just have to accept that,” James said. ‘I think it’s a fundamental fear of new technology. When people were developing airplanes, they were saying if God wanted us to fly we would have wings. Part of human nature is to be a little apprehensive about new things.”
But whether James, 65, has the chance to see the altered mosquitoes released from his lab, he said his greatest concern is the suffering caused by malaria.

”The frustration is living in the 21st century and living with these medieval diseases,” he said. ”We do this with the hope the work we’re doing will contribute to making the situation better.”
James said researchers at other UC campuses are working to target non­native mosquito species that have come to California and could transmit diseases such as Zika and Dengue fever.
”This technology has spurred an interest to see if we can move it into Africa and also how it can manage invasive species in the U.S.,” James said.



UCI establishes Malaria Initiative to fight deadly disease in Africa


Acclaimed vector biologist Anthony James to lead multi-campus effort

Irvine, Calif., May 09, 2017 — University of California, Irvine vector biologist Anthony James will lead a multi-million dollar effort to develop new strains of mosquitoes to fight malaria in Africa.

James, a world leader in creating genetically altered mosquitoes, will direct the UCI Malaria Initiative, which will bring together experts from molecular biology, entomology, public health, community engagement and regulatory control.

To aid this effort, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are providing $2 million for the development of sustainable, genetics-based approaches to controlling malaria parasite transmission by the vector mosquito, Anopheles gambie. Grants from the National Institutes of Health and other funding sources will also provide support. The work will be highly collaborative and involves scientists from other University of California campuses.

‘Our goal is to see if prototype strains developed in collaboration with UC San Diego geneticists Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier can be refined into something appropriate for malaria transmission in Africa,’ James said.

Another part of the effort with UC Davis vector biologist Greg Lanzaro, UC Berkeley mathematical modeler John Marshall and remote-sensing expert Ziad Haddad from UCLA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory-California Institute of Technology will focus on identifying field sites appropriate for a trial of the technology. They are adhering to guidelines developed by the World Health Organization, National Academies of Sciences and others in which a phased approach is used to test both safety and efficacy of the strains as the work progresses. These phases include strict adherence to national and international regulations and involve the community of stakeholders from the disease-endemic countries.

“There must be a multifaceted approach to the eradication of malaria,” said James, a Donald Bren Professor at UCI and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Science. “Working hand-in-hand with thought leaders, scientists, public health personnel and government officials, we expect to lay the foundation for eradicating a disease that affects hundreds of millions of people globally.”

In its latest statistics, The World Health Organization estimates that there were over one-quarter billion cases and some 450,000 deaths annually due to malaria, with more than 90 percent of these occurring in Africa. No effective vaccine exists yet for this disease. Mosquito control measures, such as insecticide-treated nets, have had success in reducing malaria infections and deaths, but these measures alone are not enough to achieve eradication. Among the more promising new approaches are genetic strategies to control mosquitoes and block transmission.

In 1998, James was the first to create a genetically modified mosquito model and his laboratory pioneered the development of synthetic antimalarial genes based on antibodies that prevent mosquitoes from transmitting the parasites. Along with Bier and Gantz from UCSD, he employed a revolutionary genome editing method called CRISPR/Cas9 to insert these genes into mosquitoes, and in late 2015 showed in laboratory studies that the anti-malarial trait was successfully passed on to 99 percent of the progeny, an astounding number made possible by the CRISPR/Cas9 technique. Previous methods explored by James and others resulted in only half the progeny inheriting the anti-disease trait.

What this means is that the anti-malaria DNA could spread through a large mosquito colony much more rapidly, making the use of these altered insects in wild populations potentially much more effective.

James plans to utilize this approach to create strains of Anopheles gambiae, which are the malaria-spreading mosquitoes in many parts of Africa.

James said that once the mosquitoes are released in the wild, it will require two to five seasons to measure their impact on malaria rates. He emphasizes that this will be a project in which the stakeholders – in this case, the people living in the regions with malaria – will have the ultimate say over whether or not the technology will be used.

In addition to starting its Malaria Initiative, UCI is joining UCSD to create the Vector-Borne Disease Consortium to promote discovery and development of novel science. Its objective is to eradicate mosquito transmitted diseases in India and Africa by allowing faculty and others at both UCI and UCSD to participate in the research conducted with funding from the UCSD-based Vector-Borne Disease Project in the Tata Institute of Active Genetics and Society and from the UCI Malaria Institute. UCI resources will be focused on Africa-related efforts; UCSD resources will be focused on India-related efforts.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit

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