UCF creates artificial animal tissue for mosquito research

We fight them off the best we can. 

From handheld spray to the big guns on the ground and in the air, it’s an ongoing fight against the mosquito population. Now, researchers at UCF’s College of Medicine are taking a different approach toward lifesaving research into the world's deadliest animal.

Researchers there have developed an artificial animal tissue called capillary gel, or cap-gel. It looks like a small block of red Jello. The cap-gel is built to mimic skin but is actually a bundle of tubes with human or animal cells filled with animal blood. Mosquitos don’t know it’s not the real deal.

"So the idea is that we created this new engineered human tissue platform that mosquitos can bite and blood-feed from in a natural way," said Dr. Bradley Jay Willenberg, PhD., Assistant Professor at the UCF College of Medicine, who created the cap-gel.

The researchers begin growing the cap-gel in a Petri dish. It has a hockey-puck-like shape that gets chopped up into strips. From the strips, it gets further chopped up into little blocks, and from there, it gets processed into the final product.

When researchers add droplets of blood into the block of gel, it gets sucked inside quickly, behaving like blood in vessels under the skin. Willenberg said it was a better way than using live human or animal subjects for research. "The ultimate goal is to use this platform as a new tool to give us information about the bite-site biology, the things that are going on when the mosquito bites you, and all of the questions that attach there."

The research can help experts figure out new ways to repel mosquitos. It could even help control the mosquito population. It can also help study how mosquito bites transmit deadly diseases, such as West Nile virus, dengue fever, Zika, and malaria. This research is crucial since the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those types of vector-borne diseases cause more than 700,000 deaths a year.

"So anything we can do to bring down the suffering, bring down that burden in countries across the world, that would be the goal," said Corey Seavey, a researcher at the UCF College of Medicine who assisted Dr. Willenberg with the project. 

Their next steps included partnering with other institutions and companies on cap-gel research and developing new methods for using it to battle these bugs.

In the meantime, we all know to drain standing water and avoid outdoor activities at dawn and dusk, but here are some nontraditional methods to keep yourself safe: Plant mosquito-repelling plants like citronella mosquito plants, change your lighting – white lights attract mosquitoes, so opt for yellow lights instead, and tuck in your clothes. Protect your body by tucking your shirt into your pants, and then tucking your pants into your socks.