Infecting mosquitoes with a bacterial parasite could help prevent the spread of lymphatic filariasis, a new research by Oxford University says.
Lymphatic filariasis, a tropical disease, affects more than 120 million people worldwide - of which over 40 million seriously incapacitated and disfigured by the disease. It is caused by infection with the parasitic filarial nematode, a threadlike worm that is spread by mosquitoes and occupies the lymphatic system.
In chronic cases, infection leads to a condition known as elephantiasis, which can cause severe swelling in the legs, male scrotum and female breasts.
Previous research has shown that infecting a mosquito with a strain of the bacterial parasite Wolbachia known as wMelPop (nicknamed ‘popcorn’) can halve its lifespan.
Since the filarial nematode worm takes time to develop inside its host mosquito means there were few older mosquitoes with fully developed worms that can be passed on to humans.
The research, which is to be published this week, has shown that apart from reducing mosquito’s lifespan, wMelPop directly inhibits transmission of the filarial nematode by encouraging the mosquito’s immune system to attack the worm.
They have found that significantly fewer filarial nematodes developed in mosquitoes infected with wMelPop (in some cases, 15 per cent of the number in mosquitoes which were not carrying wMelPop).
“Wolbachia infection appears to significantly increase the activity of around two hundred mosquito genes, many of which are involved in the immune response,” said Steven Sinkins, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology who led the research.
“This then primes the mosquito’s immune system to fight infection by the filarial nematodes, preventing the worm from developing to a stage where transmission to humans is possible.”
Wolbachia infections - including wMelPop - have also been shown to protect against certain viruses. The research suggests that this could also be a result of the boost to the mosquito’s immune system.
Sinkins and colleagues are currently looking at whether infecting other species of mosquito, such as Anopheles gambiae - the mosquito responsible for the majority of malaria infections - with wMelPop will have a similar effect and help inhibit malaria transmission just like filariasis.
Another potential target is the Aedes polynesiensis mosquito, which spreads lymphatic filariasis in the islands of Polynesia, where decades of mass drug administration have failed to eradicate the filarial parasites from the humans.
“The Wolbachia ‘popcorn’ strain is a naturally-occurring organism found in a particular species of fruit fly which, if successfully introduced into mosquito populations, could potentially help us fight a number of the world’s most serious diseases,” added Dr Sinkins.