By Phil Stewart
ROME, May 14 (Reuters) - Scientists in Italy say they have identified a potential weapon against malaria living inside the blood-sucking mosquitoes that spread the disease — their internal bacteria.
Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite, kills at least a million people annually. Most of the victims are young children in sub-Saharan Africa.
With attempts to completely eradicate mosquitoes or create a vaccine so far unsuccessful, the Italian scientists set out to find any bacteria that lived symbiotically inside the pests.
Such bacteria could potentially be genetically altered later to attack the malaria parasite when it reaches the mosquito, said Daniele Daffonchio at the Universita degli Studi di Milano, one of five Italian universities behind the research.
In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Monday, the team said it identified one candidate — a bacteria called Asaia, which is found throughout the mosquito’s body.
That includes the mosquito’s gut and saliva gland as well as its reproductive organs, meaning that the altered bacteria could spread to mosquito offspring.
"Instead of spraying chemical or biological pesticides, you could use this symbiotic bacteria that is passed on," Daffonchio said. "You don’t have to spray every year."
Daffonchio said research into modifying bacteria like Asaia was being conducted to battle the deadly Chagas disease.
Chagas, spread by a beetle, can lead to a range of problems from heart disease to digestive tract malfunctions, and kills tens of thousands of people a year in Latin America.
Malaria has become resistant to some drugs, and work on a vaccine has been slow.
Malaria also is intertwined with the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Recent research showed that people with malaria are more likely to transmit to sex partners the virus that causes AIDS.