Genetic Engineering has been used as a discussion tool to potentially resolve disease for decades. A recent breakthrough in the work of Gene Drives has provided spectacular results that could soon spell the end for malaria. Bringing forth fantastic news for the future of healthcare.
A Gene Drive works through an insertion being made into a chromosome. Unlike standard genetic modification, where a gene is added to one chromosome which can intrude offspring of the gene holder, the Gene Drive copies itself from one chromosome to another. Meaning almost 100% of offspring have the potential to inherit a modified gene. Opposed to 50% of offspring using standard modification methods.
In small-scale tests, Gene Drive studies have already provided exciting results in the eradication of a small, caged mosquito population carrying malaria. With the extinction of the species, comes the extinction of the disease in that particular swarm.
Gene Drives are a selfish gene format. Most species have two copies of a gene, one from the mother, and one the father. Each gene is its own version, either maternal or parental, but this is not the case with Gene Drives, as they copy and multiply – ultimately taking over hosts.
A study in 1960, conducted by American entomologist, George Craig, suggested subversive genes could be a way in which disease could be controlled, if not eradicated completely. This would be through the controlling of mosquito populations, through such methods as making male mosquitos more prominent than females, thus leaving reproduction eventually impossible.
In 2003 a similar concept was discussed by Austin Burt, of Imperial College, who described how a Gene Drive could cut its own place in a chromosome and copy itself into the result gap. Which, in the right circumstances, could drive a species to extinction, and disease with it.
Although fascinating, the theories were ignored up until 2012. When a new gene editing tool titled: CRISPR CAS9 could be engineered to target specific sections of a chromosome and insert itself seamlessly. This would ensure every gamete could receive a modified gene.
By 2016, Gene Drives had been created in mosquitoes and fruit flies to trial disease eradication. Most recently, in September 2018, Burt et al showcased the results of their recent findings in the Nature Biotechnology Journal, indicating that Gene Drives had to ability to lead small, caged mosquito populations carrying malaria to annihilation.
This is the first time the Gene Drive implementation has proved itself on such a scale, and although small, further research is to take this and transform it into larger understandings. Hopefully removing malaria, and potentially other diseases, in the foreseeable future.