Empowering research into devastating insect-borne diseases
Researchers are gaining unprecedented access to mosquitoes, ticks, sandflies and the diseases they carry, thanks to a groundbreaking EU-funded initiative that pools resources, technology and expertise to counter the world's most devastating insect-borne pathogens.
© gabort, #204566368, 2018. source: stock.adobe.com
From mosquitoes that spread malaria, dengue, Zika or yellow fever to sandflies carrying leishmaniasis or tick-borne encephalitis, parasites and viruses transmitted by insects account for at least 17 % of all infectious diseases and cause more than 700 000 deaths worldwide each year. Although these insect vectors of disease are widespread, the resources and tools available to researchers to study them have been limited until now.
The EU-funded INFRAVEC2 project, which brings together Europe's leading biosecure insectaries, is addressing the challenge, providing researchers with enhanced access to an array of insect and pathogen specimens, innovative tools and standardised testing protocols, as well as extensive knowledge and data-sharing opportunities.
'The overall aim of INFRAVEC2 is to integrate key specialised research facilities necessary for European excellence in insect vector biology, open them for access at no cost to researchers, and develop new vector control measures targeting the greatest threats to human and animal health,' says project coordinator Ken Vernick at Institut Pasteur in France.
Safely studying infected insects requires sophisticated and expensive infrastructures to contain the specimens, in order to protect researchers and prevent accidental outbreaks. With EU funding, the INFRAVEC2 partners are now able to offer access to these facilities at no cost to qualified researchers in Europe and worldwide, accelerating innovation in vector research, building a robust vector research community and facilitating the development of novel vector control methods.
A user-friendly, online, easy-to-order portal provides qualified researchers with access to insect specimens infected with requested pathogens, such as malaria or viruses, alongside specialised tools for insect vector research, including tests for insecticide resistance, next-generation genetics sequencing and bioinformatics systems.
Researchers can conduct their own experiments in sophisticated technical facilities with training and support provided by INFRAVEC2 host partners.
The project's updated vector catalogue includes many important research specimens, such as Anopheles atroparvus, a European species of mosquito that was the major carrier of malaria in Europe until the continent was declared malaria-free in 1975.
The INFRAVEC2 colony, bred from specimens collected from Spain's Ebro River Delta in 2017, replaces a decades-old colony and will enable more accurate research into the potential risks still posed by the mosquito, which would be able to transmit malaria and other diseases again if public health surveillance was relaxed.
Standardised testing for more specimens
'Many current mosquito colonies used for research are old and poorly characterised and have likely changed in different laboratories. To address this, INFRAVEC2 is creating eight new insect vector colonies for research in Europe, Africa and South America,' Vernick says. 'We have also established new cultured clones of the human malaria parasite from different geographic strains. This is important for laboratory research on malaria because the main strain in research use now is over 50 years old, and its geographic source is unclear.'
Significantly, the project is pioneering the implementation of common standards across all research facilities to ensure comparable experimental settings for insect vector infection studies, supported by the development of a genetic fingerprinting method as an authentication tool to verify colony quality.
This should provide more accurate insights into the degree of risk posed by vector-pathogen combinations, and enable more effective preventive responses.
'The goal is to develop and disseminate the world's first common inter-laboratory standards of performance for vector experiments under secure insectary conditions.
In these experiments, vectors are exposed to a pathogen under controlled conditions to measure the level of infection, and therefore predict their ability to transmit the pathogen,' Vernick says.
The INFRAVEC2 researchers are also developing methods to catalogue insects' microbiomes the full range of microbes carried by the vectors which can play a role in how they transmit disease, as well as working with communities in endemic and epidemic areas worldwide to develop social science-based strategies to integrate public insights into vector surveillance and control through crowd-sourcing data.
'Vector-borne diseases have historically been considered a problem of tropical countries. But within the space of a few decades, insect-transmitted diseases and epidemics have now also become a threat to temperate regions of the world including much of Europe,' Vernick says. 'Just as the vectors and diseases changed to spread in new environments, we must also adapt our public health measures to meet the new challenges with improved vector surveillance, research and new forms of vector control.'