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Mosquito Maven Takes Bites For Malaria Research

Jan 2, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2013 11:47 am

Most of us do everything possible to avoid mosquitoes. But one Italian researcher literally sacrifices her right arm to keep the lowly insects alive.

Chiara Adolina is studying a new malaria drug, and she needs the little suckers for her experiments. So she feeds them each day with her own blood.

She extends her arm into a mosquito cage to give the insects "breakfast." Several dozen mosquitoes spread across her forearm and jam their proboscises into her skin. "Can you see how fat they become?" she says. "Look at that tummy."

Adolina affectionately refers to her mosquitoes as "my girls."

Only female mosquitoes transmit malaria, so she's far more interested in the girls in her mosquito colony than the guys.

"The female mosquitoes bite because they need the proteins of blood to make the shell of their eggs," she says. "So they're pregnant ladies."

Adolina raises the insects at the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit, a remote laboratory on the Thai-Myanmar border. A drug-resistant form of malaria is emerging in the region, and counterfeit malaria medicines are a problem.

She's working with a drug that tries to kill the parasite inside people during an early stage of the infection — at a time when the person hasn't yet shown signs of being sick. The goal is to stop the parasite from moving back and forth between humans and mosquitoes.

Here in the U.S., biologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also farm mosquitoes for their malaria research, including some nasty bugs that are resistant to insecticides.

What happens if Adolina doesn't feed her girls? "They'll die probably," she says. "That's why when you see mosquitoes, and they really want to bite you, it's not because they're hungry. They really need to lay the eggs, so they need that blood meal."

While working in Britain a few years ago, Adolina fed her mosquitoes reheated rabbit's blood from a blood bank. Here in Thailand, though, she has a type of mosquito that will only dine on live human blood.

"Mosquitoes in Asia are really, really difficult to rear," she says. "Really delicate. Very spoiled. If you put them in a cage, they won't mate."

This means Adolina has to artificially inseminate each tiny female in the colony. "It's very difficult. It takes lots of time," she says.

Most of the mosquitoes on her arm now have dark, swollen bellies, but they are still trying to probe into her skin some more. "They feed maybe five minutes," she says. "But some of them, they are just trying to find the capillary. They just go around, and it takes longer."

A few minutes after the mosquitoes have filled themselves with Adolina's blood, most of the bite marks on her skin have disappeared. She says her body has gotten used to the bites — they hardly itch anymore.

All this, so that she can study these mosquitoes and the potentially deadly parasites inside them.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the quickest ways to fight malaria is to kill mosquitoes which spread it. While many people ponder how to do that, some scientists pursue the opposite goal, finding better ways to cultivate mosquitoes so researchers can study them.

NPR's Jason Beaubien caught up with a malaria researcher who passionately tends a colony of mosquitoes in Thailand.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Chiara Adolina refers to her mosquitoes affectionately as my girls. Because only female mosquitoes transmit malaria, this malaria researcher is far more interested in the females in her colony than the males.

CHIARA ADOLINA: The female mosquitoes bite just because they need the proteins of blood to make the shell of their eggs. So they're pregnant ladies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)

BEAUBIEN: As she's speaking, she extends her arm into a mosquito cage giving the insects, in her words, breakfast. Several dozen mosquitoes spread across her forearm and jam their proboscises into her skin.

ADOLINA: Can you see how fat they become? Look at the tummy.

BEAUBIEN: Adolina is raising this colony of mosquitoes at the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit, a remote research post on the Thai/Myanmar border. Her spotlessly clean laboratory is kept at a steady 28 degrees Centigrade. The mosquitoes buzz about in file-box sized cages.

So if they don't eat off of you, they won't lay the eggs?

ADOLINA: They will die probably, yeah. That's why when you see mosquitoes and they really want to bite you, it's not because they're hungry. They really need to lay the eggs so they need their blood meal.

BEAUBIEN: Most of the mosquitoes on her arm now have dark swollen bellies, but they're still trying to probe into her skin some more.

ADOLINA: Sometimes - now they're feeding. Sometimes they get - look, they're all fed. But now there will come others. They feed maybe five minutes. But some of them, they're just trying to find the capillary. They just go around and it takes longer.

BEAUBIEN: A few minutes after the mosquitoes have filled themselves on Adolina's blood, most of the bite marks on her skin have disappeared. She says her body has gotten used to the bites and they hardly itch any more.

In addition to her cages of adult mosquitoes, the Italian scientist has to tend to the creatures during the egg, the larvae and pupae stages too.

ADOLINA: The - well, I work on malaria transmission. So I study the biology of the parasite of malaria inside the mosquito.

BEAUBIEN: She's working with a drug that tries to kill the parasite inside people during an asymptomatic stage of the infection, at a time when the person hasn't yet shown signs of being sick. The goal is to stop the parasite from moving back and forth between humans and mosquitoes.

ADOLINA: But...

(SOUNDBITE OF A SIGH)

ADOLINA: ...it's a clever parasite. It's really clever, really, really clever - so there's always a way to escape or to survive. You know?

BEAUBIEN: While working in Britain a few years ago, Adolina was able to feed her mosquitoes on reheated rabbit's blood from a blood bank. Here in Thailand however she has mosquitoes that will only dine on live human blood.

ADOLINA: Mosquitoes in Asia are really, really difficult to rear, really difficult; very delicate, very spoiled. If you put them in a cage, they won't mate.

BEAUBIEN: Which means she has to artificially inseminate each tiny female in the colony.

ADOLINA: It's very difficult. It takes lots of time.

(LAUGHTER)

BEAUBIEN: All this so that she's able to study these mosquitoes and the potentially deadly parasites inside them.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.