GM mozzies no "silver bullet" and may not work - experts (22/3/2007)

Nobody could have failed to notice the way that GM mozzies have been popping up everywhere this week.

Here are some of the headlines:

*Genetically engineered mosquitoes to prevent Malaria

*Malaria: GM mosquitoes offer new hope for millions *Genetic discovery may eradicate malaria *New mosquitoes may kill malaria *Transgenic mosquito may prevent malaria

Many of the accompanying articles and images made front page news.

But, interestingly, Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, who leads the team at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health that have been carrying out this work, has been far more guarded in his statements, as has Hillary Hurd, a parasitologist at Keele University in the UK, whose research findings the John Hopkins team have incorporated into their work.

Here's an extract from an article in MIT's Technology Review:

'Hurd cautions that the malaria-causing parasites used by the Johns Hopkins team infect mice, not humans. "Anyone taking this strategy needs to be certain that the molecule stops transmission of the human parasite," she says. "Many of them don't."

More work needs to be done before transgenic mosquitoes can be used in the field as a malaria-control method. "Transgenic mosquitoes by themselves will never be able to solve the problem," Jacobs-Lorena says. "The only way is to use a combination of approaches: a coordinated attack using drugs, insecticides, transgenic mosquitoes, and perhaps vaccines. Then we have a chance to make a significant change in the transmission of the disease. No one should think of this as a silver bullet."'

So how did this non-silver bullet, which may not even work at all with human malaria, generate headlines like, "Genetically engineered mosquitoes to prevent Malaria"?

Although parts of the media are regularly accused by pro-GM lobbyists of being unduly susceptible to "scare stories", a study by Guy Cook, Professor in Language and Education at the Open University, found a hunger for what might be termed "GM miracles" - stories reporting speculative GM solutions to intractable problems - across all types of newspapers, even those which editorially tended to be quite sceptical about GM.

The UK newspaper The Guardian provides an interesting case in point. While GM mozzies totally dominated its front page on Tuesday, news that a recent peer reviewed study indicated that a type of GM corn approved by a number of regulatory authorities had produced signs of liver and kidney toxicity in rats in data never fully disclosed to regulators, did not even warrant a mention.

Its science correspondent, Ian Sample, did deliver a GM crop story back in December, though - 'Farmer quits GM trial after phone threats' - a story that subsequently turned out to be untrue: the farmer did quit but there were no threats, by phone or otherwise.

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