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Study Shows Oxitec GM Mosquitoes Work: What It Means for a Florida Experiment

See also "Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Glow Red and Self-Destruct; Can They Keep Away Disease?" and "Petition Against GM Mosquitoes in Key West Has Nearly 100,000 Signatures

Opposition to the potential release of Oxitec's genetically modified mosquitoes in Key West caught a head of steam this summer. A petition against the experiment garnered more than 100,000 signatures in a three-month span. News outlets portrayed Florida as a bastion of anti-GM activists while environmental groups accused Oxitec of carrying out clandestine studies and holding back data. 

But the British biotech finally looks poised to beat back some of the criticism. 

A new study appearing in Nature Biotechnology shows that releasing the genetically modified mosquitoes -- which are tweaked to pass down a self-destruct gene to offspring --  at a test site in Grand Cayman resulted in an 80 percent decline in the population of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that spreads dengue fever. The publication of the findings should go a long way in quelling accusations and rumors that Oxitec is looking to turn the Keys into something akin to The Island of Dr. Moreau.

"Publishing research in scientific journals takes time, and of course some people have found it convenient to use these delays to suggest that the supporting evidence wasn't there," Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry wrote in an email to New Times. "We hope that we can move the debate on: It is no longer a question of whether the technology works; the discussion we now need to have -- and are having with communities around the world -- is how we can work with them to help tackle dengue fever."

Cases of dengue, a "fast-emerging pandemic-prone viral disease," cropped up in Key West about two years ago. There was a spat of about 100 cases of dengue in the Keys between 2009 and 2010. But it appears the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has been able to stave off the disease through spraying and extensive and expensive door-to-door operations. 

Although there hasn't been a confirmed locally acquired case of dengue in the Keys since November 2010, the mosquito team is interested in releasing Oxtiec mosquitoes as a safeguard against another potential outbreak. Fears are that with cases of dengue soaring in nearby Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, it's only a matter of time before the disease gets a foothold in South Florida. Treating dengue isn't cheap, and an outbreak of a mosquito-borne disease would undoubtedly scare off some tourists. 

The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing an application from Oxitec that, if approved, would clear the way for an experiment in the Keys. Parry says the company already shared a "significant body of data" with the regulatory agency, so he doesn't expect the publication of the new study to be a factor in its decision-making process. 

Oxitec may have hit a milestone in publishing its findings in an esteemed journal, but the company will continue to face challenges as it looks to bring a first-of-its-kind technology to market, especially here in Florida. 

Phil Lounibos of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory previously told New Times that there was little doubt that Oxitec's mosquitoes could drive down the Aedes aegypti population. What's unclear, according to Lounibos, is if fewer Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will translate into fewer cases of dengue fever. 

Parry notes that the new study "did not set out to study the incidence of dengue fever in the treated area" but says controlling the population is crucial to keeping the disease at bay since no effective treatments or vaccines exist. 

There's also going to be continuous uproar from folks who are opposed to genetically modified anything, regardless of the potential benefits and newly published data. Signatures continue to pile up on the petition against an experiment in the Keys, and activist groups around the world churn out news releases portraying Oxitec as a mini-Monsanto bent on mutation domination. 

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