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Accidental find heralds new weapon in war on mosquitos

Monday, June 20, 2011 - 03:02

June 20 - A chemical compound, with the potential to produce an insect repellent thousands of times more effective than anything currently available, has been discovered by scientists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The discovery came about accidentally during research to find new ways of fighting malaria. Rob Muir reports.

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In a climate-controlled vault deep in the bowels of Vanderbilt University live thousands of Anopheles mosquitos. Anopheles are responsible for about a million malaria deaths globally each year, but Dr. Patrick Jones and his colleagues believe they might just have found not only a a scientific solution to the malaria scourge...but a great deal more, purely by accident. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. PATRICK JONES, POST DOCTORAL FELLOW, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY SAYING: "When we started out we sought to develop a new mosquito-specific insect repellent but along the way what we think we've discovered is a compound that has the potential to repel virtually all insects. So this would be the nuisance insects in your back yard, disease vectors as well as agricultural pests." With a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jones was studying the mosquito's olfactory system which it uses to detect humans whose blood it favours over other mammals. He would remove and crush the insects antennae, where the smell receptors are housed, then bombard them with more than 117,000 different chemical compounds to see if any affected the individual rceptor cells. One of them did. The compound is called VUAA1. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. PATRICK JONES, POST DOCTORAL FELLOW, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY SAYING: "So essentially, what this compound does is it activates every single smell receptor that a mosquito has, thus doing two things. It'll short-circuit their olfactory system but at the same time it'll also mask their ability to smell anything else." And if the mosquito can't isolate the smell of a human it won't be drawn to humans as a food source. The same principal applies to other insect pests such as crop-eating locusts or flies that are attracted to human sweat. Biological Science Professor Laurence Zwiebel, is now fielding calls from private industry about developing the compound for use in anti-malarial products, like aerosol sprays or bed-nets impregnated with the compound in a liquid form. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. PATRICK JONES, POST DOCTORAL FELLOW, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY SAYING: "This opens up an opportunity to really design a new class of chemical compounds around this active lead that we've found to perhaps reduce toxicity concerns that have been plaguing the current spate of commercial repellents, to increase the efficacy of these things - make them work at much, much lower concentrations - and ultimately to provide more access to these compounds that have a high cost as it currently stands and are outside the pocket-book of so many people around the world." But there are also implications in the developed world, for household insect repellents the scientists say would be far more powerful than anthing currently available. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. PATRICK JONES, POST DOCTORAL FELLOW, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY SAYING: "It was an accident. It was fantastic, it was something we didn't expect but we're so happy we found it and hopefully some day, this can be used to reduce malaria transmission in Africa which is our ultimate goal." Vanderbilt University has filed for a patent on the newly discovered compound and, while commercial development will take millions of dollars and years of further testing, a truly effective repellent for malaria, dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases is now a real possibility. Rob Muir, Reuters

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Accidental find heralds new weapon in war on mosquitos

Monday, June 20, 2011 - 03:02