KUALA LUMPUR - A Negri Sembilan prince is promoting a novel weapon against dengue fever: a protein "pill" that starves mosquito larvae and could revolutionise the global dengue fight.
Tunku Naquiyuddin Tuanku Ja'afar, 65, has been involved in a range of philanthropic and charitable pursuits, but dengue has been a particular passion.
It is a growing problem in Malaysia, where cases surged 22 per cent to 6,141 from January to March with 17 deaths.
Just eight dengue deaths were reported in 2011.
Among Tunku Naquiyuddin's business activities is the biotech company he founded in 2007, EntoGenex, which has taken a pre-existing protein called trypsin Modulating Oostatic Factor, or TMOF, and developed it into what he calls a fatal "diet pill" for mosquitoes.
TMOF is mixed into yeast cells which are then inserted in rice husks, allowing them to float on water where they will be eaten by mosquito larvae, said Alan Brandt, EntoGenex's research head.
"Larvae love yeast," he added.
Once consumed, it shuts down mosquito larvae digestive systems, starving them to death before they can grow and spread dengue, Tunku Naquiyuddin said.
"The pill' has a 100% success rate against all larvae species within 24 hours, and there is no way for resistance to build as it is not a toxic chemical but a protein which only affects mosquitos," he said.
The protein stops production of trypsin, a critical enzyme without which digestion cannot occur.
TMOF is harmless to animals and humans, Brandt said, washing a handful of the rice husks down with a glass of water in his laboratory as proof.
The firm has combined the TMOF with the equally tongue-twisting bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) bacteria, which eats holes in the guts of larvae but is non-toxic to people.
Most larvae die within an hour, and nearly all within 24 hours, said EntoGenex, which has held several successful field trials with universities and health authorities.
"What they have come up with is quite remarkable in combining Bti and TMOF, and the field trials have shown that there is success in using it," said Health Ministry Disease Control Division director Chong Chee Kheong.
Dengue has emerged as a global health problem in recent decades as cases have rapidly mounted.
Current methods of mosquito control include fogging with chemicals such as the insecticide DDT which can be harmful to both humans and animals, and to which insects can develop a resistance.
Tunku Naquiyuddin's "pill" is now registered for use in Malaysia, Pakistan and the Philippines, while Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon and Sri Lanka are either conducting field trials or seeking approvals to use it.
The "pill", which costs about one-eighth the price of manufacturing conventional neurotoxins like DDT, will lower costs dramatically, he said.