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'Eliminate Dengue' Team Has A Deep (Lab) Bench

Benjamin Arthur for NPR

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1

Every profession has its symbols of success. For opera singers, it's performing at La Scala or the Met. For mountain climbers it's making it to the top of Everest. For scientists, if you get two papers published in the same issue of a prestigious journal like Nature, you're hot.

So when an Australian named Scott O'Neill had two papers published in Nature last year describing his big idea for combating a disease called dengue, the world took notice. O'Neill is a medical entomologist and dean of the faculty of science at Monash University in Melbourne.

"We were getting bombarded by people around the world, from different governments, wanting us to come work in their countries because people are so desperate for something to try and stop dengue," says O'Neill.

Dengue is nasty. It's transmitted by a mosquito and can be a deadly disease. But even if it doesn't kill you, it knocks you out with a week or more of high fever and a pounding headache. Billions of people around the world are at risk for getting dengue if they get bitten by a mosquito carrying the dengue virus.

O'Neill's big idea for stopping dengue didn't involve a vaccine or a medicine. Instead, it involved attacking the mosquito that transmits the disease.

There are two parts to the idea. First, find a way to treat mosquitoes in the lab so they could no longer transmit dengue. That took him more than a decade to figure out. And five years ago, O'Neill finally managed to do it.

Next, release those dengue-proof mosquitoes and show that they will not only survive outside the lab but actually drive out the native population of mosquitoes that can transmit dengue. That's what O'Neill showed in those two Nature papers last year.

Now, I say O'Neill has done this, but that's misleading, because science is now a team sport. "We don't work in isolation in any projects in science these days," he says. "The days of having someone beavering away by themselves in the backroom have long gone, I think. So we're working in large teams always."

The days of having someone beavering away by themselves in the backroom have long gone.

O'Neill's team is also spread around the world — he has collaborators in the United States, Brazil, Vietnam and Thailand, and in the tiny town of Babinda in northeastern Australia, where I went to visit.

Babinda's main claim to fame is winning the Golden Gumboot. A gumboot is the Australian term for a waterproof boot, what the Brits call a Wellington. The Golden Gumboot is a tongue-in-cheek award given each year to the Australian town that gets the most rain.

O'Neill's team here drives through the community in a minivan, releasing lab-reared mosquitoes. Martin Durkan is on the mosquito release team. When his day starts, there are dozens of small plastic containers in the back of the van, each with about two dozen of O'Neill's mosquitoes. I watch as he drives up to a house, jumps out, walks over to the front yard, and pries the lid off the container. "And away they go," he says. "The little angels are flying."

The Challenge Of Managing Science

These little angels are the key to combating dengue. The mosquitoes native to Babinda can transmit dengue. Scott's little angels can't. If the angels can take over from the natives, then in theory there will be no more dengue in Babinda. Not that there was ever a lot of dengue here, but you've got to start somewhere.

So how do you know if the angels are winning? Well, you could ask, but sometimes it's hard to tell what mosquitoes are saying. So a better way is to collect mosquito eggs. By analyzing the eggs, you can tell whether they came from O'Neill's angels, or the local riffraff.

The analysis is done in O'Neill's's lab at Monash University, where the mosquito eggs are ground up and put into a machine that will show whether the eggs are from those nasty wild mosquitoes or whether they are descendants of O'Neill's's angels.

So far this year, it looks like the angels are taking over from the natives. But it just as easily could have gone the other way.

O'Neill couldn't have found that out without relying on his team. He told me he's seen a lot of science projects fall over because teams couldn't hang together. "Finding a way to manage a group of people who are all quite individualistic and having them work together towards this common goal is critical," he says. "So I think there's a big management component to science that's not fully appreciated."

By all accounts O'Neill is a pretty good manager. But that means at times telling people things they don't want to hear. Michael Turelli, who works at the University of California, Davis, and is a devoted member of O'Neill's team, says O'Neill is a great team leader, "but that means that if part of the team isn't working, that part of the team is cut off without ceremony. I've seen him do that. And he does it in a way that people aren't offended. They realize, 'Yes, you can't give me another million dollars, because I haven't produced anything.' So that's that."

O'Neill is moving into a critical stage of his project — he's got his special mosquitoes, he's shown they can take over in the wild, but he still has to show they can stop dengue. That's going to mean taking on a bigger challenge: releasing them in countries like Vietnam and Thailand, where dengue is a huge problem.

The Balance Between 'Self-Promotion' And 'Cautious Conservatism'

O'Neill's colleague Scott Ritchie old me about another challenge O'Neill faces that has nothing to do with management. It's about how you portray your work. He says take the name they have given their project: Eliminate Dengue.

"That's really putting yourself up there," says Ritchie, "to say that we're going to eliminate dengue. And I think a lot of scientists are saying, 'Yeah, you bet. I'll bet you haven't thought of this, you haven't thought of that, you're making big promises before you've got the evidence to say that you're going to do it.' On the other hand, a name like that draws attention. It's certainly generated a lot of attention in the media. I mean, you're here, Joe. So I think you need to find this balance between self-promotion, but also a bit of cautious conservatism."

It's the entrepreneur in O'Neill that made him choose a bold name like Eliminate Dengue. He knows there are risks.

"We need the exposure; we need people to know about what we're doing. We want to have communities supporting what we're doing. But at the same time we need to be careful," says O'Neill. "This has the potential be difficult for the team, if it comes across that this is all Scott's idea and it's all because of Scott."

O'Neill and his colleagues have learned a lot in the past 20 years. And a goal as big as this, to change an entire species of mosquitoes in the world, could take another 20 years.

"Success for me is having an impact on dengue disease in communities. That's what we're really looking for," says O'Neill.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.