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As mosquito season intensifies across the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and engineered biology conglomerate Intrexon are both working overtime to boost awareness of Zika virus. The CDC is tracking known cases and transmission as part of a growing public health education program, while Intrexon is keeping its self-limiting insect platform top of mind for investors with a barrage of press releases and investor updates. The company's platform, which is being positioned as a vector control tool against mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika virus and dengue (and can similarly be applied to control agricultural pests), represents a lower-impact and potentially more effective tool than the current status quo: insecticide applications.
But things are never quite that simple. The company's product has yet to be approved as a biopesticide by regulators, and it's not the only next-generation vector control tool undergoing field trials. MosquitoMate has also enjoyed success in greatly reducing wild mosquito populations, but employs a slightly different approach than Intrexon. Both are in talks with regulators. So, which company has the better Zika tool?
Vector control overview
Intrexon picked up the insect control platform when it acquired London-based Oxitec last summer. The idea is straightforward: Insects are engineered with a self-limiting gene, released into the wild, mate with wild populations, and pass a lethal gene on to their offspring that prevents them from reaching adulthood. The platform is being developed for various insects, including agricultural pests such as pink bollworm and diamondback moths, and the world's most dangerous animal, the mosquito. Specifically, Oxitec's most advanced mosquito-control product targets the Aedes aegypti species, which is widely distributed in the United States and is a common vector for Zika virus, dengue, yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases. Ongoing pipeline projects are underway for another disease vector, Aedes albopictus, also known as the Asian tiger mosquito.
ESTIMATED POTENTIAL RANGE OF AEDES AEGYPTI. IMAGE SOURCE: CDC.
MosquitoMate has an insect-control platform that doesn't utilize genetic engineering. Instead, the company infects mosquitoes with a common insect bacterium called Wolbachia, but from there the story parallels Oxitec. Infected mosquitoes are released into the wild, mate with wild populations, and keep offspring from surviving. The company's most advanced product targets Aedes albopictus, while trials for Aedes aegypti have recently begun in California.
Let's get right into it. Here's a breakdown of each company's vector control tool and important metrics being considered by regulators in the United States and abroad.
Sources: Compiled by author from company websites, regulatory submissions, Nature.
As you can see, both Intrexon and MosquitoMate offer intriguing technical advantages as next-generation vector control tools. Both platforms have been shown to reduce wild populations (of different mosquito species) by at least 70% with no off-target effects. While critics are quick to note that neither platform has been proven to reduce disease in humans,significantlyreducing wild populations of the vector should have that result. Studies testing this thesis are underway and should be publishedsoon.
The major difference is the fact that Intrexon's product utilizes genetic engineering. That means the biopesticide being considered is a genetically modified mosquito, which current regulatory frameworks may struggle to classify (because most countries focus on the process of creating a product instead of logically focusing on the product itself). Either way, that shouldn't keep Intrexon from regulatory approval, but it may be a major non-market factor to consider when predicting the ultimate success of the technology. This is hinted at in the tally of public comments attracted prior to domestic field trials for each company's technology: Genetically engineered mosquitoes incited over 2,600 comments, while bacteria-infected mosquitoes attracted just one.
Meanwhile, MosquitoMate has already begun testing its platform for multiple mosquito species -- and should have an easier development process than Intrexon, which has to engineer living organisms and jump through complicated regulatory hurdles for each new potential product -- although relying on infected mosquitoes could tilt selective pressures in favor of wild mosquitoes that are resistant to Wolbachia.
Both platforms face difficult paths to scaling the technology. While mosquito-producing factories are not difficult to build for either company, releasing a steady flow of vector-controlling insects across wide areas for sustained periods of time presents technical hurdles that have yet to be addressed in real-world conditions. Additionally, each platform may be relatively expensive to deploy, especially in countries that could benefit the most from controlling mosquito-borne diseases.
What does it mean for investors?
If nothing else, this comparison serves as a reminder that Intrexon isn't the only game in town when it comes to vector control solutions for mosquito-borne diseases. And although investors may not usually acknowledge the importance of non-market factors, current public sentiment about genetic engineering -- whether based on fact or fear or honest curiosity -- represents a real obstacle to self-limiting mosquitoes reaching their full market potential. Intrexon is working hard to educate the public, but that doesn't guarantee that the technology will face a frictionless path to commercialization.
A lack of non-market obstacles, combined with the reduced technical obstacles when controlling populations of multiple mosquito species, might give MosquitoMate the upper hand if we consider all factors that contribute to successful commercialization of a technical product. Then again, Intrexon's access to capital and exemplary management team could represent a crucial advantage over MosquitoMate's academic founding team, which may struggle to push the tech to market.
In reality, both technologies will likely be approved and deployed to combat the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. But if Intrexon fails to effectively communicate its technology to the public, then investors may fail to realize the full potential of the platform, especially if an alternative technology exists that doesn't utilize genetic engineering and boasts essentially equal effectiveness.
The article Intrexon vs. MosquitoMate: Who Has the Better Zika Tool? originally appeared on Fool.com.
Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow him on Twitter to keep up with developments in the engineered biology field.The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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