Scientists working at the GSK pharmaceutical company in Spain have made the surprise discovery of a naturally occurring strain of bacteria that can help stop the transmission of malaria from mosquitoes to humans.
Scientists say the bacteria could be the latest tool in the fight against one of the world’s oldest diseases, which kills over 600,000 people every year. Malaria is also rampant in Laos, with 18,337 cases and 12 deaths recorded in 2023, according to the Centre of Information and Education for Health.
The discovery was first made when scientists noticed that a colony of mosquitoes used for drug development had stopped carrying the disease.
“The infection rate in the mosquitoes started dwindling and so by the end of the year the mosquitoes just would not be infected with the malaria parasite,” says the lead scientist, Dr. Janneth Rodrigues.
Further studies into the discovery revealed that a specific strain of bacteria – TC1 – which is naturally present in the environment, stopped the development of malaria parasites in the gut of the mosquitoes.
The bacteria work by secreting a small molecule, known as harmane, which inhibits the early stages of the malaria parasite growing in the mosquito’s gut.
Dr. Jannet said, “Once it colonizes the mosquito, it lasts for the entire lifespan [of the mosquito],” “And we found out that, yes, it is the bacteria which was responsible for reducing transmission in those mosquitoes.”
The scientists also found its application to the real world, and in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University, observed that harmane, the bacteria, can be orally ingested by the mosquito if mixed with sugar, or absorbed through its cuticle on contact.
This opens up the possibility of treating surfaces that serve as resting areas for mosquitoes with the active compound.
Currently, more trials are taking place in a confined field research facility called MosquitoSphere, in Burkina Faso, West Africa to assess its effectiveness and safety when applied at scale in the real world.
Speaking about the new promising discovery, Gareth Jenkins, from the charity Malaria No More tells the BBC, “Malaria kills a child every minute. Significant progress has been made in reducing the global burden of malaria, but to get us back on track, we need new and innovative tools in the arsenal.”