Microbiome-altering mosquito repellent could last for two weeks
DEET may be an effective mosquito repellent, but it can cause irritation, and has to be reapplied every few hours. Scientists are now working on a more innocuous, longer-laster alternative, that involves introducing genetically engineered bacteria to people's skin.
The "Live Biotherapeutic Product" (LBP) repellent is being developed as part of the ReVector Program, which is spearheaded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Conducting the actual research are project partners from Boston-based biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks; Florida International University (FIU); medical dermatology company Azitra; and the Massachusetts-based Latham BioPharm Group.
The technology is focused on altering the human skin microbiome, which is the diverse community of microbes living on everyone's skin. These microbes produce odors, which the scientists state are one of the key factors that draw in blood-feeding female mosquitoes.
"The idea is that we would make a topical that would contain [engineered] microbes," FIU's Dr. Matthew DeGennaro tells us. "It would alter our odor profile … There are some core odors that are attractive to mosquitoes, that most humans present. We're going to be masking those."
Elements such as our body heat and exhaled carbon dioxide also play a role in getting mosquitoes riled up, but DeGennaro says those factors tend to generally initiate feeding behavior, as opposed to attracting the insects to a specific host.
Because everyone's skin microbiome is unique, additional research will be required to see just how effective the LBP is on a variety of human test subjects. And due to the fact that the repellent incorporates live bacteria that "take up residency" in the skin, the scientists hope that it may be effective for at least two weeks per application – even if users bathe regularly. Additionally, it should not have any side effects.
"With current repellents you might have some allergies, or you might have some strong smells, it might feel funny on your skin," says Nadia Parachin, Ginkgo's Program Director of Organism Engineering. "The idea of engineering the skin microbiome is exactly to have it as natural as possible, so it will be as if you have nothing on your skin."
If you're eager to try the LBP out for yourself, you'll still have to wait a while. The ReVector Program is a four-year project, which will require mouse studies followed by human trials before a commercial repellent reaches the market. The technology could ultimately be a game-changer, though.
"There's a lot known, there's a lot that could still be discovered, and we're going to try to put that together into this product," says DeGennaro. "It will be a live production of repellent and a live removal of attractants, so I think it could potentially be amazing."