Extra Credit

Extra Credit

Each year, more than a million people in the Third World, most of them children, die of malaria, while tens of thousands more die of dengue fever, Chagas disease and African sleeping sickness - all diseases spread by insects.

A group of Boston College biologists is working to reduce the devastating human costs of insect-borne diseases, particularly malaria, which infects more than 300 million people each year in Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

The Biology Department's Initiative for Vector and Insect Science, directed by the department's chairman, DeLuca Professor Marc Muskavitch, with assistance from Assoc. Prof. William Petri and Senior Researcher John Roche, studies the developmental and cell biology of the Anopheles mosquito that carries malaria.

Through research on the midgut of the Anopheles, they hope to learn how to disrupt the host-parasite interaction that allows the malarial parasite to reproduce in the mosquito, and spread to humans.

"Mosquitoes are part of the mission of Boston College," said Muskavitch. "Insect-borne diseases of humans tend to be most prevalent in tropical regions and most severely afflict people who are least able to muster the financial and organizational resources to combat those same diseases. Working toward the reduction of such diseases is 'fighting the good fight,' consistent with BC's mission to support scholarship with human impact."

With funds from the University and the DeLuca Chair endowment, Muskavitch is establishing in the Biology Department a gene microarray facility that will allow researchers to study thousands of genes simultaneously on a single microscope slide.

Later this year, the complete genome sequence is expected to be available for Anopheles gambiae, the mosquito that is the primary carrier of malaria to humans in Africa. "With those sequence data, we will be able to synthesize fragments of each gene in the mosquito genome, put those fragments on slides, and begin to study each gene and its possible role in disease transmission," Muskavitch said.

The Insect Initiative has a web site that Muskavitch says offers "one-stop surfing" for those looking to learn about diseases transmitted by insects.

The pages on tsetse flies and malarial mosquitoes are not as incongruous as they may seem to some visitors who don't readily associate tropical bugs with the Heights, he said.

"I hope over time many people will naturally associate with BC this type of information and our research efforts in this area, because these issues are important to global human health and their study fits with the mission of BC," he said.

-Mark Sullivan and John Roche


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