Mosquitoes are a major global health threat and Notre Dame researchers are fighting back

More than a million people die from diseases spread by mosquitoes each year. Malaria is one of the biggest culprits, with an estimated 229 million new cases of the disease in 2019, and with 94 percent of all cases and deaths occurring in the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region.

The University of Notre Dame has an esteemed history of research and training in vector-borne diseases. Anchored by world-renowned vector biologist George Craig (1957-1995) and parasitologist Paul Weinstein (1969-2008), Notre Dame researchers established a track record of excellence in vector-borne disease research. Today, this continues through the Eck Institute for Global Health as scientists conduct ground-breaking research to reduce the global burden of disease and train the next generation of experts to join the frontlines of this long battle.

Since mosquito-borne diseases primarily affect the poorest of the poor in tropical regions, the fight against a disease like malaria is also an issue of social justice,” said Dr. Bernard Nahlen, director of the Eck Institute for Global Health and professor of biological sciences. “The Eck Institute remains committed to the long-term effort to combat diseases caused by mosquitoes through investments in research, education, and outreach to those most affected, wherever they may be.”

For World Mosquito Day, see how Notre Dame researchers have made key discoveries that have improved our understanding of mosquito-borne diseases and continue these research efforts today:

Advancing spatial repellents for mosquito-borne disease control

Kenya, Mali, Sri Lanka, and Uganda

John Grieco is leading research funded by Unitaid to determine the efficacy of a spatial repellent product in preventing mosquito-borne disease. By analyzing a novel product, researchers aim to generate data on its capabilities as a cost-effective tool for limiting the spread of illnesses like malaria, dengue, and Chikungunya. The data will help shed light on the feasibility, impact, and safety of spatial repellents, and could also be used to support policy recommendations from the WHO.

Fellow program collaborators at the University of Notre Dame include Nicole Achee, Alex Perkins, Sean Moore, Fang Liu, Neil Lobo, and Jarek Nabrzyski. This team also includes an industry partner and consortium members.

Manipulating mosquitoes’ instincts to limit biting

Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands

Critical behaviors exhibited by mosquitoes, such as feeding, are time-of-day specific. And although interventions have helped prevent mosquito bites and reduce malaria, mosquitoes are now shifting those behaviors to avoid interventions. By understanding the feeding behaviors and flight activity patterns of the Anopheles farauti mosquito, Giles Duffield aims to learn how different species of mosquitoes alter their natural day-to-day to avoid insecticides and bed nets. Additionally, he will work to develop alternative interventions that disrupt these behaviors, similar to how Duffield’s research team used light to manipulate biting patterns of the Anopheles gambiae mosquito.

Developing a decision-making tool for data-driven mosquito control

Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, and Panama

Understanding mosquito behavior is vital for choosing appropriate vector intervention strategies that are effective for malaria control and elimination. In a project led by Neil Lobo, researchers piloted a decision-making tool that incorporates data on mosquitoes and how they interact with humans and the interventions in place.

The pilots resulted in changing national strategies in all four pilot countries: Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, and Panama. Investigators are presently working with the ministries of 10 countries – DRC, Ethiopia, Guyana, Indonesia, Laos, Mozambique, Nigeria, Panama, Senegal, and Zimbabwe– and implementation organizations, such as the President’s Malaria Initiative, Clinton Health Access Initiative, and PATH, towards the integration of evidence-based decision making and thereby better-protecting people. This decision-making tool is presently also being implemented in research that enables a phased approach to understanding intervention-based protection in forest malaria transmission systems.

Crowdsourcing models to accelerate drug discovery

Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East, and North America

Artemisinin is a drug that is the last line of defense against multi-drug resistant malaria, but reported cases of drug-resistance are growing in Southeast Asia. To contribute to the molecular understanding and prediction of emerging drug resistance, Geoffrey Siwo, in collaboration with Michael Ferdig’s laboratory, is leading a crowdsourcing effort to engage data scientists around the world to develop computational models of the resistance.

Over 360 data scientists drawn from across 31 countries on six continents registered for the Malaria DREAM Challenge. Launched in April 2019, this effort potentially marks the largest group of data scientists to collectively work on a single problem regarding malaria and aims to inspire the broader malaria and infectious disease communities to maximize the discovery power of large, complex datasets. Several organizations as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation support the Malaria DREAM Challenge.

Using the Lake Victoria islands as a natural laboratory

Ssese Islands and Uganda

As part of a larger team effort aimed at reducing the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in sub-Saharan Africa (the Target Malaria research consortium), Nora Besansky and colleagues have been evaluating Lake Victoria as a barrier to gene flow between vector mosquito populations in mainland Uganda and the those on the Ssese Islands off shore. One application of this research will be to inform about the suitability of one or more of these islands as potential field release sites for initial tests of novel vector genetic control technologies.

Malaria has wreaked havoc on human health from prehistoric times through to the 21st century, and at its peak infested every continent except Antarctica. Yet, it was not until 1897 when Dr. Ronald Ross, a British physician working in India, confirmed that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes when he found the malaria parasite in the stomach of an Anopheles mosquito. Now, each year the world commemorates this Nobel-prize winning discovery on World Mosquito Day to recognize how far the world has come in combating malaria and as a reminder of how much more needs to be done.

There’s an African saying that if you think you are too little to make a difference you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito. This recognizes the fact that the mosquito is the deadliest animal in the world," said Dr. Nahlen.

Beyond research on mosquito-spread diseases, the Eck Institute for Global Health uses research, training, and service to advance health standards and reduce health disparities for all. From studies into maternal, child, and community health to molecular biology and microbiology, the Eck Institute aims to holistically address global health by training the next generation of researchers and leaders through all levels of college education, including the newly expanded Master of Science in Global Health program.

The two-year program, which is a partnership among the Eck Institute for Global Health, Notre Dame College of Science, and the Keough School of Global Affairs, offers three areas of concentration: vector biology and parasitology, health governance and policy, and health analytics. The expanded program will give students an entire summer to complete their research and much of the year after to analyze and synthesize their results.

The Eck Institute offers undergraduate and graduate education and research opportunities.

The Eck Institute is rooted in the fundamental recognition of health as a basic human right and collaborates with global partners in academia, the corporate sector, non-government organizations, and government agencies to develop innovative solutions and build upon the University of Notre Dame’s historic strengths and institution priorities. Learn more about mosquito-borne disease and other global health research at globalhealth.nd.edu/research.

Unitaid is a global health agency engaged in finding innovative solutions to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases more quickly, effectively, and for affordable prices, in low- and middle-income countries. Unitaid’s work includes funding initiatives to address major diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, as well as HIV co-infections and co-morbidities such as cervical cancer and hepatitis C, and cross-cutting areas, such as fever management. Unitaid is now applying its expertise to address challenges in advancing new therapies and diagnostics for the COVID-19 pandemic, serving as a key member of the Access to COVID Tools Accelerator. Unitaid is hosted by the WHO.