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Is genetic intervention in malaria mosquitoes ethically justified?

UNESCO Chair for Bioethics at MedUni Vienna invites you to specialist meeting in the Josephinum on 7 September
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[] Anopheles Moskito

(Vienna, 1 September 2016) With modern techniques, it is now possible to intervene in the genetic information of organisms. The idea of changing the genome of Anopheles mosquitoes, which carry malaria parasites, so that they no longer represent a danger to mankind, raises ethical questions. Should Man interfere in Nature in such a way as to manipulate or even eradicate an entire species? And what consequences would that have for the ecosystem? These questions and more will be discussed by a panel of top-level experts in the Josephinum, at a meeting convened by the UNESCO Chair for Bioethics at MedUni Vienna.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 200 million people throughout the world contract malaria every year. Last year around 600,000 people died from the tropical disease, 90% of them in Africa, in most cases children under five. Malaria is caused by parasites, which are transmitted by bites from infected Anopheles mosquitoes.

The advanced technology known as "gene drive" uses the protein Crispr/Cas 9 for "genome editing". This involves cutting precise sections of the genome and replacing or deleting them. In experiments, researchers from California and the UK have already managed to breed infertile mosquitoes or mosquitoes that are no longer capable of transmitting the malaria pathogens. This also opens the way to similar approaches for combating the spread of other mosquito-borne viruses such as the zika virus or dengue fever, for example.

However, just because something is technically feasible, that does not mean that we should do it. "The eradication of an entire species can have unforeseen consequences for the ecosystem," explains Christiane Druml, Head of the UNESCO Chair for Bioethics and the Josephinum. "What impact would something like that have on the environment and the local population?"

In order to discuss the technical possibilities and also the consequences of this action, top-level experts are meeting in the Josephinum on 7 September 2016 at the invitation of the UNESCO Chair for Bioethics, the ethical platform of the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOKU) and the Centre de Recherches Médicales de Lambaréné. Among these experts will be, for example, WHO malaria expert Francine Ntoumi from the University of Tübingen and Nicolai Windbichler (Imperial College London), who is one of the authors of the original publication about "gene drive".

"Malaria is a big problem for the populations in the affected regions but large-scale intervention in the natural order obviously raises ethical questions, which we will be discussing at this meeting," explains Christiane Druml.

Event: Fighting Malaria with CRISPR/Cas9: Ethical Implications
On 7 September 2016, an international meeting will discuss to what extent techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 can permanently change mosquitoes of the Anopheles species so that they are no longer able to transmit malaria. What might be the consequences for mankind but also for the environment and the ecosystem? What are the ethical implications? This specialist meeting will be held in English. Place and time: Josephinum, Währinger Straße 25, 1090 Vienna, 9:30 – 17:00 hours. Participants must register and can do so at dominika.flomyn@meduniwien.ac.at (Tel. 40160-26051).

Journalists will have the opportunity to interview the speakers.