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NMSU’s SkitoSnack project wins Gates Foundation grant

A New Mexico State University biology professor is among 52 researchers in 19 countries to receive a share of $5.2 million in Grand Challenges Exploration grants funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Immo Hansen, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was selected from among 1,800 applicants to receive $100,000 for his project to develop an alternative meal for mosquitoes to meet a critical need for researchers trying to stop the spread of the disease-carrying insect.

Closeup of mosquito that appears blue after feeding on NMSU’s SkitoSnack™ alternative meal. Biology professor Immo Hansen and his team developed the alternative to blood meals to help researchers who breed large numbers of mosquitoes in the lab to help control diseases. (Courtesy Photo) JUN15
“Mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever are a serious threat to human health around the world,” Hansen said. “During the past decades several mosquito control strategies have been developed that require the release of large numbers of mosquitoes grown in laboratory culture.”
Hansen’s project called “SkitoSnack — Replacing Vertebrate Blood in Mosquito Mass Rearing” will provide an alternative to blood needed by researchers to feed and breed large quantities of mosquitoes in the lab so they can be introduced into the wild and impact the mosquito population.
“Sterile Insect Technique, endosymbiontic Wolbachia bacteria, or replacement of field populations with GMO mosquitoes that are refractory for diseases all depend on mosquito mass culture,” said Hansen. “Mosquitoes need blood for egg development. Therefore, a source of blood and an efficient feeding system has to be acquired at every mosquito mass-rearing facility.”
SkitoSnack consists of serum albumin and another protein that together support egg development in female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Hansen will analyze the mosquitoes fed on SkitoSnack versus vertebrate blood to identify the need for any supplements to maximize egg production, and evaluate ways to stabilize the alternative meal and attract the mosquitoes.
Hansen has trademarked the SkitoSnak name. He and his team will also look at commercialization of the product for widespread use.
“We will work closely with NMSU’s Arrowhead Center on developing SkitoSnack into a commercial product,” Hansen said. “Alternatives to vertebrate blood are urgently needed in mosquito rearing facilities all over the world. This grant will help us to further develop SkitoSnack to help meet that need.”
To win the funding, Hansen demonstrated in a two-page application his idea to break the mold in solving a persistent global health challenge. The Grand Challenges Exploration grant is among four major grants Hansen has received over the last five years.
“Grants like this allow us to test new hypotheses and ideas,” Hansen said. “The SkitoSnack project also supports the thesis research for Kristina Gonzales, a Ph.D. student and fellow in the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement program in the biology department at NMSU and it will provide the salary for postdoctoral researcher Dr. Anthony Clemons.”
Grand Challenges Exploration is a $100 million initiative to provide grants for scientists around the world with innovative early-stage projects. Phase II grants of $1 million have been awarded to five researchers selected from among earlier Phase I grants.
“I feel very fortunate to be a part of this SkitoSnack project, said Gonzalez. “I hope that my involvement with SkitoSnack will give me the opportunity to gain recognition that may lead to a post doctoral position and a career in mosquito research.
“I would like to see SkitoSnack become a commercially available product for mosquito laboratories all over the world. It is a great feeling to be able to contribute to science and to be a part of something that could have a huge impact on mosquito research.”
For more information please contact Dr. Jim Murphy, Associate Dean for Research at