Researchers uncover 'very promising' malaria breakthrough

UK researchers have found a way to completely eliminate populations of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes.

It's hoped the technique could help combat the disease-spreading pest in the wild.

While for most of us in New Zealand, that annoying high-pitched buzz means a disrupted sleep and an itchy, unsightly bite, in many parts of the developing world, mosquitoes are a threat to life.

Now, scientists at the Imperial College London may have found a way to eradicate entire populations of them, using gene drive technology that stops female mosquitoes from reproducing.

"These females show male characteristics, so they don't bite and they don't lay eggs - so it's a good way to eradicate the population," says reproduction and genomics professor at the University of Otago, Neil Gemmell.

The World Health Organisation says there were 216 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2016, resulting in 445,000 deaths.

In lab tests, scientists were able to wipe out populations of the mosquito that transmit the disease in 7-11 generations - and they hope it could work in the wild.

"The laboratory experiments like the one published today look very promising as a tool that could potentially control one of the most devastating diseases that we know of," says Prof. Gemmell.

Further experiments are needed, firstly to see if it could work outside a laboratory and secondly, to find out the consequences of eliminating a mosquito from the ecosystem. 

Scientists say it will be five to 10 years before the technique is tested in the wild.