18 Genetic engineering
LSIPR Newsletter 02:13
A novel approach Oxitec’s pioneering insect sterilisation technique could eradicate dengue fever and malaria and cut crop damage worldwide. LSIPR spoke to CEO Hadyn Parry about the company’s development and its approach to protecting its inventions.
n the past 10 years, research teams have built biomechanical body parts, printed synthetic meat and mapped the human genome. They might even have discovered the legendary Higgs boson. But despite these advancements in science and medicine, malaria, dengue fever and crop damage caused by insects remain a growing problem Dengue cases have increased 30-fold since the 1960s and malaria kills more than 500,000 each year, while agricultural pests cause famines around the world. Yet there are no approved vaccines for either disease and until now, the most popular method of pest control has been spraying harmful pesticides and keeping fingers crossed. “In public health, there is a mindset that the best you can do is spray chemicals and try not to make the problem any worse. The idea that you can solve it is completely novel,” says Hadyn Parry. Parry is the CEO of Oxitec, a company founded in 2002 after researchers at Oxford University’s zoology department developed a method of sterilising insects that could wipe out disease-carrying species and provide a safer, more affordable way to reduce the population of agricultural pests such as fruit flies and bollworms.
“We’ve had to patent with an idea of where we’re going to need patents in 10 years’ time or more.” Researchers have been working on sterile insect techniques (SITs) for years, but all have so far relied on radiation. As Parry explains, this method is costly and works only on a limited number of species. “People have tried traditional SITs with mosquitos and have never been able to make it work. It has been impossible to find the perfect dose of radiation that will damage the species enough so it can’t breed, but not so much that it’s unfit.” Instead of radiation, Oxitec uses genetic engineering to breed insect strains that are healthy, but produce offspring that will die before reaching adulthood. Where possible, the company breeds only the non-damaging
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sex of each species (such as male mosquitos, which do not bite), meaning that unlike radiation techniques, it can wipe out local pest populations without causing further environmental damage. Depending on an insect’s life cycle, it can take between two and four years to develop a healthy ‘sterile’ strain. This is done in laboratories, where the insects are fed on artificial diets and put through rigorous tests to check their fitness. Oxitec then carries out cage trials in the insect’s natural environment and, if these trials are successful, the sterile strain is released into the wild. This development process can take up to 10 years, and perfecting the pre-release rearing method is key to Oxitec’s success. “This has to be perfected so that we can release millions of insects in the field. Otherwise, the technique is not cost-effective,” he says. These rearing methods make up the bulk of Oxitec’s patent portfolio and while the company is heavily involved in drawing up patent claims, its patent prosecution is handled externally by law firm Marks and Clerk. “Most of our IP is around how DNA is inserted into the insects and how we make sure it’s stable and safe. We’re also developing patents around