Chancellor's Friday Letters

Research that saves lives

Research that saves lives

December 10, 2010

Dear Friends,

At the time of the year when we often think about gifts, I ask you to contemplate, what if your gift was to save a life?

What if your gift had the potential to save thousands of lives, lives of some of the most vulnerable people – children – in some of the most underdeveloped corners of the globe?

Would you, as I do, consider such a gift as the mother of all possible gifts?

It is with this perspective that I commend many of the research programs at the University of California, Riverside, in general and the work of Alex Raikhel in particular.

What is the problem?

Dengue is a mosquito-borne infection that causes a severe flu-like illness, and the World Health Organization estimates some 50 million people are affected every year. Dengue is found in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world, predominantly in urban and semi-urban areas.

In many cases, a potentially lethal complication called dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) develops; the WHO estimates that 500,000 people with DHF require hospitalization each year, and a very large proportion are children. About 12,500 of those affected die, and in some communities the rate approaches a horrifying 20 percent.

What may be the solution?

Regrettably, there is no vaccine.

How about approaching it by, in effect, sterilizing mosquitoes?  No eggs … no baby mosquitoes … no vector to carry the dengue virus.

This is the work of our Distinguished Professor and National Academy of Science member Alex Raikhel and his students, post-docs, and collaborators.

His research has focused on understanding the insect’s reproductive cycle at the molecular level. The female needs a meal of blood for her eggs to develop properly. Dr. Raikhel set out to understand the molecular and genetic basis of how this blood meal works.

Two weeks ago, the Raikhel lab published a powerful breakthrough in the scientific literature. They had discovered a piece of genetic material in mosquitoes that controls cell growth and development. This genetic material – called a microRNA – is crucial during egg production.  This particular microRNA is highly elevated during the development of eggs in Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (the species that carries dengue fever). Our scientists developed a method of turning off the microRNA in female mosquitoes.

They then fed the ‘turned-off’ mosquito some blood to see what would happen when they no longer had the crucial microRNA available.

What was the outcome?

The blood remained undigested in the mosquitoes’ guts, and the eggs never developed.

As I said … no eggs, no baby mosquitoes, no disease vector.

In Alex’s own words, “In tropical areas of the world, where dengue and yellow fever are often leading causes of hospitalization and death, a reduction of the number of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes would be tremendously beneficial.”  Such a reduction would exponentially decrease the likelihood of disease transmission from one infected person to another.

Now that his lab at UCR has opened the door to this new approach, other mosquito species, transmitting other diseases such as malaria (lethal to nearly one million people annually, mostly African children) and yellow fever (lethal to 30,000 people annually), may soon have their egg-development secrets revealed, and their populations decreased around the globe.

Indeed, Alex’s research is a wonderful gift to human kind.



Tim White, Chancellor

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Tourism of the Nobel Variety
UCR Professor Raymond L. Williams is in Stockholm today to mark the presentation of the Nobel Prize for literature to Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa.  Professor Williams is one of the leading experts on the writings of Llosa.

Remembering Emory
“National Dreams and Rude Awakenings” is a book that brings together twenty important essays by the late Emory Elliott, a distinguished professor of English at UCR and someone who influenced the shape of American literary scholarship. A reception yesterday on campus allowed his many friends to pay tribute to his legacy.

Find out what else is going on at UC Riverside: http://www.ucr.edu/happenings/

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