The Pirbright Institute has received an award worth up to $2.6 million to develop proof-of-concept tools that could prevent mosquitoes from transmitting a broad range of viruses. The project forms part of DARPA’s Preventing Emerging Pathogenic Threats (PREEMPT) programme, which aims to predict and contain viral mutations to prevent cross-species transmission of viral infectious disease from animals and insects to humans.
The Pirbright led research will modify mosquitoes to reduce their ability to spread flaviviruses such as Zika virus, dengue virus, West Nile virus and yellow fever virus. This group of viruses has a wide range of hosts and can be spread from animals to humans (called zoonosis). Pirbright will work with University of Nottingham and University of Tartu, Estonia, to develop entirely new methods of blocking viral replication in mosquitoes, thereby preventing the mosquitoes from transmitting viruses amongst host animals.
Professor Luke Alphey, Head of the Arthropod Genetics group at the Institute said: “High profile emerging diseases such as Zika demonstrate how little we know about the hosts and vectors this group of zoonotic viruses usually occupy. Predicting which viruses may next threaten humans is extremely difficult, and virus-specific therapies take time to develop, so we are usually on the back foot in terms of responding. Instead, in this project, we aim to develop broad-spectrum tools that will inhibit transmission of both known and unknown viruses within this group, allowing rapid response or pre-emption of emerging threats”.
State-of-the-art genetic mechanisms will provide resistance to flaviviruses through the expression of anti-viral genes which will only be activated when a mosquito cell becomes infected. The team will also study scalable methods for propagating flavivirus resistance throughout mosquito populations. Interrupting the transmission cycle of flaviviruses would provide a valuable method for reducing reservoirs of viruses that circulate in often hard-to-reach host animal populations, which in turn could lower the risk of spillover into humans. The broad spectrum action of the tools produced would allow multiple flaviviruses to be targeted at once.
The team’s approaches are now at an early stage of development. No field trials or releases are envisioned within any of these current projects, and all of the research will take place in biosecure facilities. The ultimate aim is to develop potentially field-usable tools for disease-control agencies in affected countries, and the data gathered could factor into decisions by those end users on what strategies to pursue to prevent new zoonoses.
“Reducing host animal reservoirs can be extremely difficult, particularly in areas where resources and technology for surveillance are hard to come by and the animal populations are remote. By targeting mosquitoes we can knock out the main path of transmission for flaviviruses and reduce the available pools of infection. This in turn would lower the chances of both existing and unknown flaviviruses spreading to humans”, added Professor Alphey.
About The Pirbright Institute
The Pirbright Institute is a world leading centre of excellence in research and surveillance of virus diseases of farm animals and viruses that spread from animals to humans. Based in the UK and receiving strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Institute works to enhance capability to contain, control and eliminate these economically and medically important diseases through highly innovative fundamental and applied bioscience.
With an annual income of nearly £32.1 million from grants and commercial activity, and a total of £14.3 million strategic investment from BBSRC during 2017-2018, the Institute contributes to global food security and health, improving quality of life for animals and people.
For more information about The Pirbright Institute see: www.pirbright.ac.uk