12:50pm Friday 17 January 2020

UQ dengue research makes another breakthrough

Professor Scott O’Neill, Head of UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, leads a research program (www.eliminatedengue.com)that is investigating infecting mosquitoes with a bacterium that shortens their lifespan and limits their ability to infect humans with the dengue virus.

Professor O’Neill said their latest findings, to be published in leading scientific journal Cell on December 24, suggest this approach may be even more effective than first thought.

“In a surprising development we have found that mosquitoes carrying this bacterium – known as Wolbachia – are resistant to a range of pathogens that cause disease in humans including dengue, Chikungunya and malaria parasites,” Professor O’Neill said.

“We think this Wolbachia-mediated pathogen interference may work synergistically with the life-shortening strategy to provide a powerful approach for the control of insect transmitted diseases.

“What this means is our original proposed method for dengue control may be more effective than we had previously considered and may even be extended to a range of other diseases in the future.”

There is no vaccine or cure for dengue fever, which is a painful and debilitating disease, also known as ‘breakbone fever’, that is estimated to afflict more than 50 million people worldwide every year.

Dengue haemorrhagic fever, the more severe form of the disease can be lethal, killing more than 40,000 worldwide every year.

The virus is of greatest concern in tropical parts of the developing world but outbreaks are becoming increasingly common in North Queensland, Australia. Last summer more than 900 cases were reported from the Cairns area.

Professor O’Neill said the Wolbachia bacterium, which is harmless to humans and animals, is passed down between generations of mosquitoes inside their eggs and can invade mosquito populations once seeded into a population. Mosquitoes that carry Wolbachia live shorter lives and have a greatly reduced ability to transmit dengue virus between humans.

The research forms part of a large research program funded through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative.

Media: Jenny Sutton (0402 548 703 or email j.sutton1@uq.edu.au).

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