Mr. Kirk, 62, is a self-made billionaire, buying up or investing in companies in the biotech world. So when Intrexon acquired the British company Oxitec last summer, it attracted little attention as he extended his reach into genetically modified insects.
Mr. Kirk is leader in the effort to control the Zika virus, suspected of causing babies to be born with tiny heads and damaged brains. It is rampant in Latin America and threatening the United States.
Within 6 months, Oxitec can reduce the mosquito population by 90% in tests that have already been performed. The Oxitec technology is not based on gene drive. The Oxitec approach is self limiting and does not persist in the environment.
If his plans to sell the engineered mosquitoes succeed, Mr. Kirk will fortify his near cultlike status among some investors and colleagues who marvel at his shrewd (and somewhat lucky) investments.
Perhaps more important, a victory against the rapidly spreading epidemic could weaken opposition to genetically engineered organisms of all sorts, propelling many others out of the lab, onto the dinner table or into the environment.
Now Mr. Kirk must persuade federal agencies, foreign governments and nonprofit health organizations to place orders. He must counter caution from the World Health Organization and federal officials, who question whether the technique will be effective on a large scale. And he must overcome qualms about genetic engineering that have prompted opposition to the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and elsewhere.
The United Nations says the Zika virus has a strong chance of advancing across the Americas. Only Canada and Chile have been unaffected so far as the mosquito that transmits the virus has never been seen in those countries. The Zika virus has been linked with brain damage in nearly four thousand babies in Brazil. One British biotech firm is using its expertise to contain the disease and is turning to genetic modification. Oxitec is that company, and it is mating sterile male mosquitoes with virus-carrying females, with promising early results. CCTV America's Rachelle Akuffo spoke to the CEO Hadyn Parry of Oxitec about the possibilities and pitfalls of his approach.
Dr. Luciana Borio, acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, told a House subcommittee on Wednesday that the agency was “greatly expediting” Oxitec’s application to test the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and would issue a draft environmental assessment very soon.
It is hard to judge the strength of Intrexon’s core technology, known as UltraVector, which is a computerized system for putting together modular DNA pieces to make complex genetic circuits. The company, saying it wants to protect its trade secrets, has not published articles about it in scientific literature.
Intrexon’s shares have fallen to about $37 from near $70 in July, though biotech stocks in general have also fallen. The company’s market value is $4.3 billion, making Mr. Kirk’s 53 percent worth over $2 billion.
One big commercial opportunity could be Intrexon’s pilot project to use genetically altered microbes to turn natural gas, which is cheap and abundant, into isobutanol, a liquid fuel that can be used in cars. Investors want to see if Intrexon’s partner, the energy giant Dominion, commits to building a commercial plant, which Mr. Kirk hopes could happen as early as this year.
Intrexon is now building a factory in Piracicaba to produce 60 million male mosquitoes a week, enough to protect at least 300,000 people, and Mr. Kirk believes production could be increased to cover entire cities or countries
SOURCES - NY Times, Youtube, Oxitec, Intrexon