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New weapon against malaria: mutant fungus

LONDON -- In a cramped London laboratory filled with test tubes, bacteria and mosquitoes, scientists are trying to engineer a new weapon in the battle against malaria: a mutant fungus.

For years, Angray Kang at Westminster University and colleagues have been testing whether they could genetically tweak a fungus to kill the malaria parasite carried by mosquitoes.

Now they've found that in lab experiments, mosquitoes exposed to the fungus show a sharp drop in levels of the parasite. If it works that way in the wild, that should make it harder for the disease to infect people.

Kang said the mutant fungus could be sprayed onto walls and bednets like insecticides and could be made for a comparable cost.

He said the same process of genetic modification could also be used to target other insect-spread diseases like dengue and West Nile virus. The research was done together with scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Early results were published recently in the journal Science.

"This is very exciting research," said Andrew Read, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University. He has worked on similar projects but was not involved with the fungus research. "It tells us that if you can't find something in nature to do what you want, you can just make it."

One group that campaigns against genetically modified organisms warned the mutant fungus could skew behaviors of other wildlife.

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Pete Riley, campaign director of GM Freeze, a U.K.-based advocacy group, said the modified fungus could have unintended consequences which might be impossible to reverse. "Nature has a pretty cunning way of getting around everything we throw at it," he said.

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