Low-cost method found at UNM battles Zika virus

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Researchers at the University of New Mexico are looking to cheaply battle the spread of the Zika virus with items common to a restaurant: lemon grass oil and yeast.

Concern over Zika has come to the forefront due to recent outbreaks of the disease, which may be linked to serious birth defects.

The researchers found the method effective in lab trials last year and are now seeking a patent and a partner to push forward.

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Dr. Scott Matthews turns to Greek mythology to explain the method. He envisioned a way of combining one of mosquitoes’ favorite foods, yeast, and lemon grass oil, which is lethal to the insects, in a “Trojan horse.”

It’s cheap, nontoxic, and the heating process used to house the oil in yeast is easy for the layperson to learn. And that’s important, because countries affected by mosquito-spread diseases are often short on resources.

“We wanted to make it the kind of thing where people wouldn’t have to rely on outside support,” Matthews said. “People need to be able to pick up the ball and run with it.”

The Aedes mosquito in its larval phase. UNM researchers are working on a method for killing mosquito larvae using yeast cells filled with lemon grass oil. (Courtesy Of UNM )

The Aedes mosquito in its larval phase. UNM researchers are working on a method for killing mosquito larvae using yeast cells filled with lemon grass oil. (Courtesy Of UNM )

The project comes out of the UNM School of Medicine’s Center for Global Health from a lab headed by Dr. Ravi Durvasula. He, Matthews and Ivy Hurwitz, who holds a doctorate degree, have found the method to be effective in small-scale, contained trials as of last summer.

The university is seeking a patent on the technology, but it still needs to test the technology on a larger scale. And it can’t do that unless it has a partner, Durvasula said.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito has shot to infamy in recent weeks because the flying pest spreads Zika virus, as well as dengue fever and other tropical diseases.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a public warning about the spread of Zika virus, which could be linked to serious birth defects in babies born to women infected with the virus.

The virus has broken out in some South American countries, including Brazil. Cases have been found in other countries, including the United States.

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The world has long known lemon grass oil can do more than flavor chicken. The oil is toxic to mosquitoes. It attacks their respiratory, nervous, digestive, endocrine and respiratory systems.

But people can’t just drop lemon grass oil into water supplies. Sunlight or natural agitation will break down the oil. The yeast keeps it together until the mosquito larvae consume it, Matthews said.

The yeast is heavy in nutrition and an attractive meal for mosquito larvae, he said. In the process of digestion, the yeast breaks down and the oil seeps into the larvae’s guts. That kills the pest before it has a chance to reach maturity.

Lemon grass oil is also easy and cheap to produce. A gallon, Durvasula said, could kill millions of mosquitoes.

In laboratory conditions, the yeast-oil concentration also has proved effective at killing the culex mosquito, the bug that carries West Nile virus. New Mexico has had cases of West Nile virus annually since 2003, according to the state Department of Health.

But the unknown is how dropping the oil and yeast concoction would work in real world conditions, say a puddle where larvae have other food sources, or a huge cistern.

Matthews relishes the challenge.

“That’s where the fun of science comes in,” he said, “in having to improvise to challenges you could never anticipate, you know, in adapting something to the natural world.”

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