Scientists: Stinky sock smell helps fight malaria

July 13, 2011 - 7:29 AM

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Scientists say one funky odor most humans recoil from — the pungent smell of old gym socks — is actually irresistible to mosquitoes.

Donors announced new funding Wednesday that would channel the smell of stinky feet into a new weapon against malaria.

Traps scented with the odor of human feet attracted four times as many mosquitoes as a human volunteer, said Dr. Fredros Okumu, the head of the research project at Tanzania's Ifakara Health Institute. Mosquitoes who fly into the trap are then poisoned.

Bed nets and indoor spraying have already substantially reduced the number of fatal malaria cases, but so far scientists have not come up with a good way to help combat mosquitoes outdoors.

Although the global infection rate of malaria is going down, there are still more than 220 million new cases of malaria each year. The U.N. says almost 800,000 of those people die. Most of them are children in Africa.

"The global goal of eradication of malaria will not be possible without new technologies," said Okumu, who has been ill with the disease himself several times.

Dutch scientist Dr. Bart Knols first discovered mosquitoes were attracted to foot odor by standing in a dark room naked and examining where he was bitten, said Okumu. But over the following 15 years, researchers struggled to put the knowledge to use.

Okumu has been working on his project to trap mosquitoes for two years. He mixed eight chemical compounds to find the perfect odor, and then experimented with poisons to find one that could kill up to 95 percent of mosquitoes.

Now Okumu, who received an initial grant of $100,000 to help his research two years ago, has been awarded an additional $775,000 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada to create an affordable mosquito trap that could be used outside homes.

Okumu said more research was needed to find the right place to put the traps. Too close would attract mosquitoes near the humans and expose them to greater risk of bites, but the devices would be ineffective if too far away.

The current traps are expensive prototypes but Okumu hopes to produce affordable traps that can be sold for between $4 and $27 each.

"It's African innovation for an African problem being developed in Africa," said Dr. Peter A. Singer, the head of Grand Challenges Canada. "It's bold, it's innovative and it has the potential for big impact ... who would have thought that a lifesaving technology was lurking in your laundry basket?"