Prevention Is The Best Cure

Grind for February 10th, 2019
“The idea is to write so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”

– Maya Angelou

A New Approach

The Headline

Why scientists are giving human diet pills to mosquitoes

The Grind

Female mosquitos drink the blood of animals and humans because they are driven to do so by an insatiable appetite.

Sounds like the beginning of a cheap vampire novel, right?

When pregnant, a female mosquito will drink enough blood to support her typical clutch of 100 eggs. Each supersized meal increases her weight by 100%.

“They can barely fly,” jokes neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall, whose team hopes to use human diet drugs to curb mosquitoes’ bloodlust.

“When they’re hungry, these mosquitoes…fly toward the scent of a human the same way that we might approach a chocolate cake,” explains Vosshall. “But after they were given the drug, they lost interest.”

The Details

Female mosquitoes breed and lay eggs several times during their short lifetimes (6-8 weeks), making them ideal vehicles for spreading diseases.

“On a lark we thought…let’s do the craziest experiment possible, and get some human diet drugs and see if they work on mosquitoes,” said Vosshall. “It was surprising that it worked so well.”

After testing a series of diet drugs on the Aedes Aegypti mosquito (the one that spreads yellow fever and Zika virus), the team was able to pinpoint exactly which area of the brain needed to be activated to reduce hunger.

Next, they created a cocktail of chemicals designed specifically to control the appetite of biting insects.

“Human drugs are owned by pharmaceutical companies,” explains Vosshall. “And so we wanted to find something where the IP wasn’t locked up.”

Vosshall’s experiments are among many that seek to prevent mosquitoes from spreading disease – but rarely have these experiments sought to control the bugs’ behavior.

“Humans have been trying to fight mosquitoes ever since there were humans,” says Vosshall, pointing to control methods like mosquito nets, bug spray, and genetic engineering. “All of these advances are complimentary…our behavior control is something else in this portfolio.”

While Vosshall’s experiments were more successful than expected, there is still much work to be done before her approach can be implemented in the real world.

“Transitioning from laboratory experiments to the field is always difficult,” says tropical medicine expert James Logan. “One of the biggest challenges will be devising a system that attracts mosquitoes well enough and allows them to feed on this substance effectively.”

Time For Action

The Headline

New bill supports jail time for execs after data breaches

The Grind

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) is working on a bill that gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the power to punish executives of large companies with lax cybersecurity.

“The point is the FTC on privacy issues thus far has basically been toothless,” says Wyden, whose proposal follows major data breaches at Marriott, Equifax, and Facebook. “I am trying to recreate this agency for the digital era.”

Executives would only be punished in cases when a company falsifies reports to the FTC after a breach (in other words, companies that follow FTC standards are safe). Executives whose companies violate FTC rules could face up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to 4% of the company’s annual revenue.

The Details

“Information about consumers’ activities, including location information and the websites they visit is tracked, sold, and monetized without their knowledge by many entities,” reads the bill summary.

Meanwhile, “corporations’ lax cybersecurity and poor oversight of commercial data-sharing partnerships has resulted in major data breaches and the misuse of Americans’ personal data, [and] consumers have no effective way to control companies’ use and sharing of their data.”

The central mechanism of Wyden’s proposal is a “do not track” opt-out system that would protect consumers’ data from third parties unless data sharing is “necessary for the primary purpose for which the consumer provided the personal information.”

The proposal requires the FTC to create the opt-out system within two years, but allows the agency to hire up to 175 additional staff.

Wyden’s proposal comes amid calls from both parties to tighten restrictions on big companies in order to protect consumer information. And while his bill is unlikely to pass (given its extreme penalties), it represents an important step forward

At the end of the day, threatening big companies with real punishments is the only way to make them invest in cybersecurity and the only way to keep our personal information safe. I hope to see more proposals like Wyden’s introduced this year.

Did you know… Beavers can swim half a mile underwater on one gulp of air.