Manorama, 24 July 2009
Bangalore/Chennai: Experiments with genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes planned in India by a British company in a move to find a way to control dengue fever have taken sections of the scientific community by surprise. "I am trying to get full details about what is going on," V.M. Katoch, secretary in the Department of Health Research and chief of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), said.
Oxford Insect Technology (Oxitec) Ltd of UK is breeding the GM mosquitoes of aedes aegypti species in a facility provided by its local partner in Padappai village near Chennai. This species spreads dengue fever in India.
The company claims its patented genetic technology allows generation of only sterile males and releasing millions of these in the open could reduce the wild population through infertile matings, thereby offering a novel way of controlling dengue fever.
To test its theory, Oxitec brought to India what it calls "a lab-adapted African strain" of aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the form of dried eggs. The permit for its import was issued by the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) in August 2008, said Sridhar Vasan, Oxitec's head of public health.
"We are waiting to hear formally from RCGM before we can start the experiments," Vasan said. "Our longer-term goal would be to move to field trials," if the breeding and mating trials in the contained facility showed promise, he said.
The RCGM, under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), had until recently only allowed import of GM seeds and pharmaceuticals for which biosafety guidelines exist in the country. No GM insects were ever allowed.
Pushpa Bhargava, renowned biologist and the Supreme Court's nominee in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee - the apex regulatory body - says he is worried about experiments with alien strains of GM mosquitoes in a private facility in the absence of specific government bio-safety guidelines for GM insects.
Katoch, who took over the ICMR only six months ago, is not aware of RCGM's permission or the fact that the subcommittee for monitoring and the company's work is headed by R.S. Sharma from the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme under the health ministry.
The sterile insect technique (SIT), as it is called, may work in the lab but not in the field, cautions P.K. Rajagopalan, former director of the ICMR's Vector Control Research Centre (VCRC) in Pondicherry.
Bhargava warns it will be disastrous if the released sterile males get back their fertility as a result of random gene mutations. "Probability of such an accident cannot be dismissed when millions of GM mosquitoes are released day after day or week after week," he says.
He says fertility can also be restored with terrible consequences, by the antibiotic tetracycline that may be found in soil or water bodies because, according to Oxitec, its GM mosquitoes are designed to stay sterile only as long as its diet does not contain tetracycline.
Katoch said he was seeking comments from ICMR scientists before taking action. One reason for the ICMR's extreme caution with this project is the fear that tinkering with the genome of aedes aegypti mosquito might make it a vector of fatal yellow fever that does not exist in India.
But Luke Alphey, research director of Oxitec, says it is not likely. "Oxitec's technology simply acts to reduce the number of mosquitoes by killing progeny of wild - sterile matings. It does not aim to alter vector competence of living mosquitoes," Alphey said.
But the ICMR has been cautious ever since 1975 when the Indian government terminated a US-funded aedes release experiment at Sonepat in Haryana on the recommendation of an expert committee.
"Two years ago Oxitec came to us for testing its technology but we said no," said P. Jambulingam, director of VCRC. "We also made it clear to them that India did not encourage this method for mosquito control. I do not know how the company managed to get permission from RCGM."
A.P.Dash, then director of the ICMR's National Institute of Malaria Research (NIMR), says he rejected Oxitec's proposal when RCGM sought his comments.
Bhargava is surprised at Oxitec's persistence to "enter through the back door" by trying to get the risky technology validated by a private company near Chennai after it failed to get the support of ICMR institutes.
The company (International Institute of Biotechnology and Toxicology, IIBAT), despite the high sounding name, is a service provider for pesticide and chemicals producers with no previous experience in mosquito research.
"The 'international' tag does not mean we have an international staff. It only means we do (contract) work for foreign companies," admits IIBAT director Balakrishna Murthy.
K.K. Tripathi, adviser in DBT and secretary of RCGM, confesses that he favored Oxitec technology even though "every mosquito expert" he consulted including V.P. Sharma, former director of NIMR and an authority in this field, opposed it.
"Oxitec technology is wonderful, just the right one for developing countries," Tripathi said. "I am taking the responsibility in promoting this for the benefit of India."
However, Tripathi's predecessor P.K. Ghosh says that with so many adverse comments, RCGM should not have permitted the trial in a hurry.
V.P. Kamboj, a reproductive biologist who chairs RCGM, says there is no cause for concern as no GM mosquitoes have been released yet.
"We have permitted only breeding and mating trials within a confined facility to verify the company's claims."
He said that in the light of concerns expressed by some experts, the committee will again examine the issues closely. "If we find the trials are not in the national interest, we will not allow it to move further."