Target Malaria is a nonprofit research consortium working to develop gene drive technologies to control the mosquitoes that transmit malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. It is led by Austin Burt, a professor of evolutionary genetics at Imperial College London.
Gene drives operate by using CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) to insert a genetic modification into a population and spreading it at higher-than-normal rates of inheritance. Offspring from an organism carrying a gene drive inherit the drive from the engineered parent on one chromosome and a normal gene from the other parent on the other chromosome. During early development, the CRISPR drive cuts the other copy and replaces it with a copy of the drive, producing an organism with two copies of the genetic modification. Thus, while a mutation spread through Mendelian inheritance can propagate to only 50% of descendants with each generation, a modification spread through gene drives (or “super-Mendelian” inheritance) is passed on to virtually all descendants within a single generation (Scudellari 2019).
Two applications of gene drives to the control of malaria have been proposed. One is to modify the relevant mosquito species to make it incapable of carrying the malaria parasite. The other is to significantly reduce the population of those mosquito species (Open Philanthropy 2017a). Once the gene drives are released, the relevant mutation could be propagated through the entire population of interest in a period of just a few years. In 2016, a group of researchers at Imperial College and other universities genetically engineered the Anopheles gambiae mosquito—the primary mosquito species that spreads the malaria parasite—rendering it capable of passing the genetic modification to over 99% of offspring (Hammond et al 2016).
In July 2019, after obtaining approval from the National Biosafety Agency and the ethics committee of the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé of Burkina Faso, Target Malaria released a strain of genetically modified (but non gene drive) sterile male mosquito in Bana, a town in the Balé province of that West African country (Diabate 2019). Target Malaria has also research teams in Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, and Uganda.
Target Malaria is primarily funded by Open Philanthropy and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Open Philanthropy 2017a; Burt 2020). Open Philanthropy estimates that their grant to Target Malaria is competitive with donations to the Against Malaria Foundation (Open Philanthropy 2017b).
Burt, Austin (2021) 2021: progress during challenging times, Target Malaria’s Blog, January 18.
Diabate, Abdoulaye (2019) Target Malaria proceeded with a small-scale release of genetically modified sterile male mosquitoes in Bana, a village in Burkina Faso, Target Malaria’s Blog, July 1.
Dunphy, Siobhán (2020) Interview with Professor Austin Burt: role of gene drive technology in the context of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy 2030, European Scientist, October 28.
Hammond, Andrew et al. (2016) A CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive system targeting female reproduction in the malaria mosquito vector Anopheles gambiae, Nature Biotechnology, vol. 34, pp. 78–83.
North, Ace R., Austin Burt & H. Charles J. Godfray (2019) Modelling the potential of genetic control of malaria mosquitoes at national scale, BMC Biology, vol. 17, pp. 1–12.
Open Philanthropy (2017a) Target Malaria — gene drives for malaria control, Open Philanthropy, May.
Open Philanthropy (2017b) Rough Target Malaria cost-effectiveness calculation, Open Philanthropy.
Scudellari, Megan (2019) Self-destructing mosquitoes and sterilized rodents: the promise of gene drives, Nature, vol. 571, pp. 160–162.
Target Malaria. Official website.