According to the World Health Organization more than 2.5 billion people – around 40% of the world’s population – live in areas where dengue fever can exist. 100 million people are infected with the mosquito-borne virus each year, with 20,000 fatalities. Because of its complexity and the populations that are at risk, finding a cure or a vaccine has been a low global priority.
The disease is mainly transmitted to humans by the aedes aegypti mosquito, and causes symptoms including high fever, body aches, rashes and heavy fatigue. In severe cases, white blood cells drop to potentially fatal levels.
Dengue fever is a growing problem in Malaysia, a tiny parliamentary elective monarchy at the far southeast corner of Asia (if you’re interested in what that means, check out the note at the end). Cases of dengue fever surged by 22% between January and March of this year, with double the deaths of all 2011.
Enter Prince Naquiyuddin Jaafar, one of the most popular members of Malaysia’s nobility. A former diplomat and son of Malaysia’s past king, Naquiyuddin, 65, has been involved in a wide range of philanthropic and charitable pursuits, but dengue has been a particular passion.
Among Naquiyuddin’s diverse business activities is the biotech company he founded in 2007, EntoGenex. The company’s researchers have taken a pre-existing protein called the Trypsin Modulating Oostatic Factor (TMOF), combined it with the bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) bacteria, mixed them with yeast cells and inserted the resulting “pill” into rice husks. The loaded rice husks float on water where they are eaten by mosquito larvae… which then die within 24 hours.
The protein TMOF stops production of trypsin, a critical enzyme without which digestion cannot occur, causing the larvae’s digestive systems to shut down and producing rapid starvation. The Bti bacteria eat fatal holes in larval guts. The yeast is the bait – larvae love yeast.
At a press conference at the firm’s research facility in Kuala Lumpur, Prince Naquiyuddin said “The ‘pill’ has a 100 percent success rate against all larvae species within 24 hours, and there is no way for resistance to build as it is not a toxic chemical but a protein which only affects mosquitoes.” The larvae die before they can mature into adult mosquitoes and spread the disease.
TMOF is harmless to animals and humans, said Alan Brandt, EntoGenex’s research head, washing a handful of the rice husks down with a glass of water in his laboratory as proof. The bacterium is also non-toxic to anything other than larvae.
“What they have come up with is quite remarkable in combining Bti and TMOF, and the field trials have shown that there is success in using it,” said the Malaysian Health Ministry’s Disease Control Division director Chong Chee Kheong.
Authorities in Malaysia are unsure of the reasons driving the recent spike in cases there, but have speculated that wetter weather as a result of changing climate patterns could be a factor.
Current methods of mosquito control include fogging with chemicals such as the insecticide DDT which can be harmful to both humans and animals, and to which insects can develop a resistance.
Naquiyuddin’s “pill” is now registered for use in Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines, while Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon and Sri Lanka are either conducting field trials or seeking approvals to use it.
He hopes it could potentially become a weapon in the even larger fight against malaria, which kills an estimated 650,000 people per year.
The “pill”, which costs about one-eighth the price of manufacturing conventional neurotoxins like DDT, will lower costs dramatically, said Naquiyuddin.
“We are offering a cheaper and much healthier alternative to fighting dengue and malaria, and this is why we are in the business: to improve the quality of life of people, while helping to solve a major health threat,” he said.
So, any bets on how long it will take the FDA to approve this for use in combating malaria in various U.S. territories and West Nile Virus here in the continental U.S.? I’m figuring, oh, ten to twenty years.
Malaysia’s intriguing form of government: Malaysia has a British-style parliamentary system, with the Prime Minister being the head of the government. However, Malaysia also retains its monarchy, electing its king every five years from the royal families of the original nine states of Malay. In practice, the monarchy rotates between the nine royal families. I suggest reading the Wikipedia entry on Malaysia; it’s pretty fascinating.