Tech companies wage war on disease-carrying mosquitoes

Researcher Ethan Jackson places the Project Premonition mosquito trap in the wild in this handout photo obtained by Reuters June 30, 2017. Microsoft/Handout via REUTERS

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – American technology companies are bringing automation and robotics to the age-old task of battling mosquitoes in a bid to halt the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne maladies worldwide.

Firms including Microsoft Corp and California life sciences company Verily are forming partnerships with public health officials in several U.S. states to test new high-tech tools.

In Texas, Microsoft is testing a smart trap to isolate and capture Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, known Zika carriers, for study by entomologists to give them a jump on predicting outbreaks.

Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences division based in Mountain View, California, is speeding the process for creating sterile male mosquitoes to mate with females in the wild, offering a form of birth control for the species.

While it may take years for these advances to become widely available, public health experts say new players brings fresh thinking to vector control, which still relies heavily on traditional defenses such as larvicides and insecticides. “It’s exciting when technology companies come on board,” said Anandasankar Ray, an associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside. “Their approach to a biological challenge is to engineer a solution.”


The Zika epidemic that emerged in Brazil in 2015 and left thousands of babies suffering from birth defects has added urgency to the effort.

While cases there have slowed markedly, mosquitoes capable of carrying the virus – Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus – are spreading in the Americas, including large swaths of the southern United States.

(For a map of U.S. mosquito territory, see

The vast majority of the 5,365 Zika cases reported in the United States so far are from travelers who contracted the virus elsewhere. Still, two states – Texas and Florida – have recorded cases transmitted by local mosquitoes, making them prime testing grounds for new technology.

In Texas, 10 mosquito traps made by Microsoft are operating in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston.

Roughly the size of large birdhouses, the devices use robotics, infrared sensors, machine learning and cloud computing to help health officials keep tabs on potential disease carriers.

Texas recorded six cases of local mosquito transmission of Zika in November and December of last year. Experts believe the actual number is likely higher because most infected people do not develop symptoms.

Pregnant women are at high risk because they can pass the virus to their fetuses, resulting in a variety of birth defects. Those include microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with undersized skulls and brains. The World Health Organization declared Zika a global health emergency in February 2016.

Most conventional mosquito traps capture all comers – moths, flies, other mosquito varieties – leaving a pile of specimens for entomologists to sort through. The Microsoft machines differentiate insects by measuring a feature unique to each species: the shadows cast by their beating wings. When a trap detects an Aedes aegypti in one of its 64 chambers, the door slams shut.

The machine “makes a decision about whether to trap it,” said Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft engineer who is developing the device.

The Houston tests, begun last summer, showed the traps could detect Aedes aegypti and other medically important mosquitoes with 85 percent accuracy, Jackson said.

The machines also record shadows made by other insects as well as environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. The data can be used to build models to predict where and when mosquitoes are active.

Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County’s mosquito and vector control division, said the traps save time and give researchers more insight into mosquito behavior. “For science and research, this is a dream come true,” he said.

The traps are prototypes now. But Microsoft’s Jackson said the company eventually hopes to sell them for a few hundred dollars each, roughly the price of conventional traps. The goal is to spur wide adoption, particularly in developing countries, to detect potential epidemics before they start.

“What we hope is (the traps) will allow us to bring more precision to public health,” Jackson said.


Other companies, meanwhile, are developing technology to shrink mosquito populations by rendering male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes sterile. When these sterile males mate with females in the wild, their eggs don’t hatch.

The strategy offers an alternative to chemical pesticides. But it requires the release of millions of laboratory-bred mosquitoes into the outdoors. Males don’t bite, which has made this an easier sell to places now hosting tests.

Oxitec, an Oxford, England-based division of Germantown, Maryland-based Intrexon Corp, is creating male mosquitoes genetically modified to be sterile. It has already deployed them in Brazil, and is seeking regulatory approval for tests in Florida and Texas.

MosquitoMate Inc, a startup formed by researchers at the University of Kentucky, is using a naturally occurring bacterium called Wolbachia to render male mosquitoes sterile.

One of the biggest challenges is sorting the sexes.

At MosquitoMate’s labs in Lexington, immature mosquitoes are forced through a sieve-like mechanism that separates the smaller males from the females. These mosquitoes are then hand sorted to weed out any stray females that slip through.

“That’s basically done using eyeballs,” said Stephen Dobson, MosquitoMate’s chief executive.

Enter Verily. The company is automating mosquito sorting with robots to make it faster and more affordable. Company officials declined to be interviewed. But on its website, Verily says it’s combining sensors, algorithms and “novel engineering” to speed the process.

Verily and MosquitoMate have teamed up to test their technology in Fresno, California, where Aedes aegypti arrived in 2013.

Officials worry that residents who contract Zika elsewhere could spread it in Fresno if they’re bitten by local mosquitoes that could pass the virus to others.

“That is very much of a concern because it is the primary vector for diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and obviously Zika,” said Steve Mulligan, manager of the Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District in Fresno County.

The study, which still needs state and federal approval, is slated for later this summer.

(Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Scientists to test whether Zika can kill brain cancer cells

FILE PHOTO - Genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are pictured at Oxitec factory in Piracicaba, Brazil, October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists in Britain plan to harness the Zika virus to try to kill brain tumor cells in experiments that they say could lead to new ways to fight an aggressive type of cancer.

The research will focus on glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of barely 5 percent.

Zika causes severe disability in babies by attacking developing stem cells in the brain – but in adults, whose brains are fully formed, it often causes no more than mild flu-like symptoms.

In glioblastoma, the cancer cells are similar to those in the developing brain, suggesting that the virus could be used to target them while sparing normal adult brain tissue.

Experts say existing treatments have to be given at low doses to avoid damaging healthy tissue.

Researchers led by Harry Bulstrode at Cambridge University will use tumor cells in the lab and in mice to assess Zika’s potential.

The mosquito-borne virus has spread to more than 60 countries and territories in a global outbreak that was first identified in Brazil in 2015.

“Zika virus infection in babies and children is a major global health concern, and the focus has been to discover more about the virus to find new possible treatments,” Bulstrode said in a statement.

“We’re taking a different approach, and want to use these new insights to see if the virus can be unleashed against one of the hardest-to-treat cancers …

“We hope to show that the Zika virus can slow down brain tumor growth in tests in the lab,” Bulstrode added. “If we can learn lessons from Zika’s ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and target brain stem cells selectively, we could be holding the key to future treatments.”

(Editing by Louise Ireland and Kevin Liffey)

Battling cancer with light

By Ben Gruber

(Reuters) – Researchers have for the first time used a technique called optogenetics to prevent and reverse cancer by manipulating electrical signals in cells.

Lead author on the study Brook Chernet injected frog embryos with two types of genes, an oncogene to predispose them to cancer and another gene to produce light sensitive “ion channels” in tumor-type cells.

Ion channels are passageways into and out of the cell that open in response to certain signals. When the channels are open, the movement of ions into or out of the cell creates an electrical signal.

The researchers were able to activate the channels on tumor-type cells by exposing the embryos to light. By activating the channels and adjusting the electrical signals in the cells, the team was able to both prevent and reverse tumor formation in 30 percent of cases, according to the study.

“You can turn on the light, in this case it’s blue light and you blink this blue light at this tumor, I believe it’s 24 hours, and the tumor goes away,” said researcher Dany Adams, a co-author on the paper.

This latest success builds on years of research from Michael Levin’s lab at Tufts University.

“We call this whole research program cracking the bioelectric code,” said Levin, professor and chair of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.

By targeting the electrical patterns in cells, it’s possible to control how fast they divide and what information they share with their neighbors, says Levin.

“The idea is much like the brain when neuroscientists try to figure out the semantics of electrical states in the brain, we try to figure out how patterns are encoded in electrical states in the body,” he added.

The use of optogenetics to control ion channels has been an important research tool for neuroscientists studying the brain and nervous system. This is the first time the technique has been applied to cancer research.

“The electrical communication amongst cells is really important for tumor suppression. The bigger picture is to understand how these voltages are passed among cells and how they control the transfer of chemical signals among cells,” Levin said.

“We need to crack this bioelectrical code. We really need to figure out how computations in tissues and decision making about pattern and cell behavior and so on are encoded in electrical signaling. That is sort of the next ten years,” he added.

The role of optogenetics in cancer treatment for humans is still unclear, but the underlying science of how electricity functions in the body has the potential to unlock new ways of treating all types of disease in years to come.

The study was published in the journal Oncotarget last month.

Cow Bile & Garlic Potion Kills Superbug

A medieval remedy for eye infections has accidentally been discovered as a killer of the drug-resistant superbug MRSA.

Dr. Christina Lee of Nottingham University, England, recreated the 10th century potion to see if it really worked as an anti-bacterial remedy for stys and other eye infections.

The salve comes from two species of Allium (garlic, onions or leeks), wine and oxgall (the bile from a cow’s stomach.)  The substances are place din a brass vessel to brew, strained for purity and then left for nine days before used on the subjects.

The researchers were shocked to see the “medication” cured stys.

The researchers then decided to see if other diseases could be impacted by the salve and tested it on mice that had MRSA in wounds.  The study showed 999 of 1000 MRSA cells were killed by the remedy.

Dr. Kendra Rumbaugh of Texas Tech University said the salve worked “as good, if not better than” drugs that are currently on the market.

The researchers are now seeking approvals to test the concoction on humans.

Scientists Claim Finding Key In Stopping Alzheimer’s

British scientists say they have found the key to stopping Alzheimer’s disease in the early stages.

The study at Cambridge University could lead to a “statin-like” drug that could be prescribed to stop dementia.

The scientists found a naturally occurring molecule that slows down the formation of plaque in the brain.  The plaques are closely connected to memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

“This is the starting point for finding a drug that stops Alzheimer’s disease in its tracks. It might be used when the first symptoms appear. But another potential approach is that people would take it as a preventative drug,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Samuel Cohen.

The molecules that slow the plaque are Brichos, a family of proteins that naturally exist in human lungs.  Testing in mice showed the molecules stick to fibrils and stop them from forming more plaques.

“There may well be lots of other molecules like this – we just have not been looking until now because it was not clear what to look for,” Dr. Cohen said.

“People could take them in their 60s to stop these proteins grouping together, well before the symptoms appear, which would reduce the risk of developing the devastating effects of this disease.”

Scientists May Have Found Cure To Common Cold

British scientists say they have found a way to “jam” the genetic code of the common cold and stop the virus from being able to replicate inside the body.

If true, it could mean almost immediate cures to the common cold.

Scientists with the Universities of Leeds and York say they used a computer model to identify the viral genome that causes rhinoviruses.  The molecules can be blocked at the genetic level and essentially stop the disease before it starts.

The breakthrough’s news was tempered by the fact the scientists would have to conduct animal testing before they can develop the drug that could deliver the necessary items to block the genetic code.

“We have understood for decades that the RNA carries the genetic messages that create viral proteins, but we didn’t know that, hidden within the stream of letters we use to denote the genetic information, is a second code governing virus assembly,” Dr Roman Tuma, Reader in Biophysics at the University of Leeds, told the London Daily Telegraph.

“It is like finding a secret message within an ordinary news report and then being able to crack the whole coding system behind it.”