Vector-borne illnesses are diseases that are transmitted by insects, and these diseases result in the death of more than 5 million people annually. Currently there are pills (such as those given for malaria) and vaccines for some of the illnesses are being developed. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been researching synthetic biology to provide a more cost-effective solution to treating the illness. The agency has recently begun working with several other groups as a part of DARPA’s ReVector Program, which focuses on protecting American troops from vector-borne illnesses when they are deployed.
Most of the current methods of repelling mosquitoes (which are frequent carriers of vector-borne diseases) are not as effective as they have to be frequently applied to the skin. The ReVector Program has been looking at microbe-based preventative solutions. Diseases can be understood on a microbial level, giving researchers a way of genetically engineering organisms to counter the disease. Skin already has a wealth of microorganisms. The ReVector Program is continuing to look at ways to repel mosquitoes, by altering the existing ecosystem to weaken the signals that attract mosquitoes to human skin. By having a repellent work with a weakened appeal to mosquitoes, the project hopes to further reduce the likelihood of transmitting diseases.
The ReVector Program is planned to last four years and has been designed in three phases:
- Produce and test repellants to determine the most effective one
- Identify the microbes that were the most effective in the best repellant, as well as understanding the less effective repellents to see if they have worked to mask volatiles such as heat, carbon dioxide and certain chemical elements and compounds
- Repellants will be used on study participants, then they will be subjected to putting their arm in a container that is full of mosquitoes to see how effective the repellant is
It is hoped that in addition to seeing what works as the best repellant, researchers will be able to have a better understanding of the data and way that genetics can be leveraged to fight vector-borne diseases. Since this is the beginning of synthetic biology, it will be years before it will be widely available, even if the project avoids major issues and problems.
For more fascinating details on this potentially revolutionary study, check out Can Synthetic Biology Make Mosquito-Borne Diseases a Thing of the Past?