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Malaria-Fighting Technology Earns 2019 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize

A research team based in the U.S. and Burkina Faso will receive the 2019 Newcomb Cleveland Prize. | Neil Orman/AAAS

A team of nine researchers based in the United States and Burkina Faso will receive the 2019 Newcomb Cleveland Prize, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for the development of a promising tool in the global fight against malaria and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, including dengue and Zika.

Each year since 1923, the Newcomb Cleveland Prize has honored the most impactful research paper published in the journal Science. In this year’s winning paper, the authors described how they engineered a fungus to infect mosquitoes that had grown immune to insecticides, inducing rapid population collapse in a simulated village setting.

Every two minutes, a child dies of malaria. In 2018, the World Health Organization reported 228 million cases of malaria and more than 400,000 deaths from the disease worldwide, with 93% of cases and 94% of deaths occurring in Africa. Burkina Faso, a country of just under 20 million people, recorded nearly 8 million cases that year.

These grim figures, however, represent a significant improvement. Since 2010, malaria cases and deaths have decreased by 18% and 28% respectively, largely due to DDT, pyrethroids and other insecticides being applied to bed nets and living spaces. With mosquito populations increasingly developing resistance to insecticides, though, vulnerable communities are in urgent need of new approaches.

A team led by Brian Lovett, then a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Maryland’s entomology department, and Etienne Bilgo, a postdoctoral fellow in biomedical sciences at the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé/Centre Muraz in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, developed one such method. By genetically engineering a naturally occurring fungal pathogen to produce a toxin derived from spider venom, they were able to deliver a lethal blow to mosquitoes.

A research team led by Brian Lovett, center, and Etienne Bilgo, right, will receive the 2019 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize. | Courtesy of Brian Lovett
The researchers’ MosquitoSphere was built to mimic the natural environment, with appropriate vegetation, breeding sites and blood sources for mosquitoes. | Courtesy of Brian Lovett; Sarah Weiser/Retro Report

In the researchers’ MosquitoSphere, a screen-enclosed experimental environment near a rural village in Burkina Faso, the toxin, which is harmless to humans, killed roughly 75% of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes and caused an established population to collapse within 45 days. These results from the MosquitoSphere, which the team built to mimic the natural environment — with appropriate vegetation, breeding sites and blood sources for mosquitoes — are an important step toward epidemiological field studies of the technology.

“The study is one of extraordinary scope and creativity,” said Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science and chair of the Newcomb Cleveland Prize Selection Committee. “Not only is it a highly clever idea to use a fungus to transmit insect-selective toxins, but the breadth of the study, from engineering the fungus all the way through demonstrating the viability of the approach, is superb and meets all of our highest standards.”

Established with funds donated by Newcomb Cleveland of New York City, the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize recognizes the author or authors of an outstanding paper published in the Research Articles or Reports sections of Science. Stephen P. A. Fodor, who received the prize in 1992, established an endowment in 2019 to help sustain it in perpetuity.

Papers published between June 2018 and May 2019 were eligible for this year’s award. Along with a medal and $25,000 in prize money, the winners receive complimentary registration and reimbursed travel expenses to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting.

The authors of the winning paper, “Transgenic Metarhizium rapidly kills mosquitoes in a malaria-endemic region of Burkina Faso,” published in the May 31, 2019, issue of Science, will receive the award during the 186th AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 13, 2019.