CRISPRMalaria is one of the main diseases that has claimed the lives of many Nigerians. Due to population, social and climate conditions, malaria in Nigeria has been difficult to manage and control. Furthermore, it has been challenging to arrive at a permanent solution. However, CRISPR Therapeutics is working to create a gene-based solution that will reduce the spread of malaria, saving the lives of many.

What is Malaria?

Malaria is a dangerous and potentially fatal disease. It is spread by a parasite that commonly infects a specific type of mosquito, primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa. When mosquitoes feed off humans, malaria is spread. Malaria is not contagious but one can obtain the disease if traveling to a malaria-riddled country. Although malaria is considered deadly, malaria-related deaths can usually be prevented. Because malaria results in widespread sickness and death, it has a severe impact on many national economies. Since many countries with malaria are usually lower-income nations, the disease creates a vicious cycle of sickness and impoverishment.

There are four types of parasites that have the potential to infect humans, Plasmodium falciparum is the kind that if not immediately treated, can lead to death. People who have low immunity to malaria, such as young children, pregnant women or travelers coming from areas with no malaria, are at the highest risk of a case of fatal malaria. In addition, impoverished people with inadequate access to proper healthcare are also at risk. Bearing in mind these factors, an estimated 90% of deaths due to malaria occur in Africa and most of these deaths are children under 5. More than one million people die from malaria each year and 300-600 million people annually suffer from it, making it a significant barrier to development.

Malaria in Nigeria

According to the 2019 World Malaria Report, Nigeria held the record for most cases of malaria in 2018 as 25% of global malaria cases were in Nigeria. Moreover, in 2018, the country held the highest number of global malaria deaths at 24%.

The entire country of Nigeria is at risk of malaria because roughly 76% of Nigerians are located in high transmission areas. Malaria is more contagious in the tropical south as the season can last year long. However, in the north, malaria season lasts at most three months. Studies show that children living in rural areas and low socioeconomic classes are most prone to malaria.

The global community has funded Nigeria’s government well to fight its malaria crisis. For example, the government has received funding for malaria control from the Global Fund. It has negotiated additional loans from the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and the African Development Bank. Nigeria also receives assistance from the USAID President’s Malaria Initiative.

CRISPR and Gene Editing

CRISPR Therapeutics strives to create therapies treating malaria, cancer, diabetes and other serious diseases through CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing is the process by which DNA is edited by precisely cutting DNA and allowing natural DNA repair processes to take command. Corrected genes or newly introduced genes, can help bring immunity to malaria. CRISPR also has the potential to alleviate global poverty and improve conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.

CRISPR and Malaria

To solve the malaria crisis, scientists are considering CRISPR technology to explore the possibility of genetic modification within mosquitoes. This could include eradicating the malaria gene within mosquitoes or simply shrinking their population. Using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, the goal is to control the spread of malaria. Why target the mosquitoes? With international travel and climate change, the disease has spread internationally. Scientists have concluded that the best route to eradicate malaria is to attack the mosquito instead of the parasite.

CRISPR technology applications for malaria could potentially change malaria control strategies. Rather than simply trying to treat the people affected by malaria, with CRISPR technology, the disease could be completely eradicated. Africa will benefit the most from this potential application. CRISPR technology could potentially eradicate malaria, thus reducing the impact on people’s health and on the economy as well. Overall, CRISPR technology can break the cycle of poverty in Africa.

Ella Kaplun
Photo: pixabay

Treat Sickle Cell DiseaseCRISPR gene-editing technology is now being used to treat various illnesses. This holds the potential to be a life-changing development for many people and may treat those plagued with sickle cell disease around the world.

What is Sickle Cell Disease?

Sickle cell disease is most prevalent in African countries, where having one copy of the sickle cell gene helps protect people against malaria. However, having two copies of this gene results in sickle cell disease. Sickle cell disease occurs because of a genetic mutation that causes red blood cells to develop a sickle-shape and this obstructs healthy blood flow. The condition can cause serious pain and negative health effects, usually resulting in early death. When considering children with the disease, 70% are born in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, these countries do not have adequate resources to properly alleviate the symptoms of this condition, let alone treat them.

A Potential Cure

In recent months, it has been discovered that CRISPR gene-editing technology may be the key to curing sickle cell disease. CRISPR–Cas9 is a naturally occurring defense system that edits DNA sequences to fight viruses in the human body. In the past decade, scientists have discovered how to harness this system’s ability to manipulate DNA in chosen ways. The result of this is CRISPR gene editing is a powerful technology that can correct genome defects and even alter entire genomes.

CRISPR technology works by editing genes, which modifies how the body functions. First, medical professionals remove patients’ bone marrow and treat it. Then, CRISPR allows scientists to “cut and paste” bits of the genome by either cutting or adding a sequence of DNA into the genome. This can correct genetic mutations, ultimately improving a patient’s health.

In the U.S., a trial of using CRISPR to cure sickle cell disease is yielding promising results. The treatment uses CRISPR technology to activate a gene that instructs the body to produce fetal hemoglobin instead of adult hemoglobin. The presence of fetal hemoglobin prevents the blood cells from sickling. In this way, the treatment alleviates the health complications typically resulting from sickle cell disease. The subject of this trial is much healthier and has made exceptional progress in her recovery. These spectacular results have left many people hopeful that CRISPR technology could successfully treat sickle cell disease, with more widespread results by 2022.

The Future of CRISPR Treatment

For CRISPR treatment to reach its full potential, it must become more accessible to those who need it most. Therefore, the underprivileged in sub-Saharan Africa would benefit greatly. One suggested way to overcome accessibility barriers is through a tiered-pricing system. This system would offer gene therapy treatment to patients in developing countries at a reduced price, while patients in high-income countries would be expected to pay for the treatment in full.

There are currently logistical barriers to this solution, as gene therapy can cost thousands of dollars. The cost of CRISPR treatment would have to be greatly reduced (beyond the normal price drops of tiered pricing) to be successfully made available to the underprivileged. Additionally, this treatment requires consistent doctor visits. Much of sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to health clinics and other essential resources, such as refrigeration.

Breaking Down Barriers

Organizations are helping to eliminate the barriers blocking CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease in developing countries. The National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $200 million to this cause in 2019. This money will help make gene therapy accessible throughout the world and improve the quality of life for thousands. With the promise of affordable CRISPR gene modification therapy, there is hope for individuals worldwide to treat sickle cell disease. Permanently improving the quality of life is the end goal. Those living in developing countries, the global poor and those vulnerable to falling into poverty will be the most to benefit from this exciting, technological development.

– Hannah Allbery
Photo: Flickr