In 1940, B-movie actor Ronald Reagan starred in the film Murder in the Air. The future President played Brass Bancroft, a secret agent who discovers the existence of a laser that can shoot down missiles. At the time, the impact this would impact on public health policy was not clear. Many years later, the 72-year-old President Reagan of the United States announced the Strategic Defense (sic) Initiative. Ridiculed as “Star Wars”, the scheme was loosely based on the plot of the somewhat forgotten film.
Described as like “hitting a bullet with a bullet”, the scheme was ultimately unsuccessful in its primary objective of developing a laser to shoot missiles out of the sky. However, the investment by the government did pay off in technological advances. Like many avenues of research, it went off in a direction utterly at odds with what was initially expected. Scientists have now announced to the media that they are developing lasers to shoot down mosquitoes. These researches had previously been working on President Reagan’s plan to build a laser for military purposes.
Mosquitoes are vectors for a myriad of infectious diseases, chief among them malaria, but also dengue fever, lymphatic filariasis and others. Malaria was eradicated from Europe by use of the pesticide DDT, which kills the mosquitoes. Other methods in current use to contain the spread of malaria by reducing human-mosquito contact include the use of insecticide-treated bed nets to repel mosquitoes.
In the same week, the BBC reported laser sweat ablation being used for the first time in the UK. Excessive sweating, or hyperhidrosis, from the armpits was treated by a surgeon directing lasers to destroy sweat glands. This disabling condition is very different to malaria, and has a very different cause, but lasers are now being used in its treatment.
The idea of controlling disease by using lasers to shoot mosquitoes sounds like it comes from Dr. Evil, but I would not rule out this becoming an effective intervention in the future. The more we learn about pathogenesis, the more particulate causes of disease are discovered: parasites, bacteria, viruses and prions. Lasers that are now learning to pick out and eliminate mosquitoes may be used in future to distinguish these pathogens from other matter. Unlikely, but it may happen.
The World Wide Web was created as a by-product of the main research at CERN. It is difficult to predict what application some of the most theoretical scientific research will have. We can only hope that it will be a weapon against disease rather than a new atomic bomb.