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How NC State used math and fibers to make a mosquito-proof fabric that may save lives

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 2021-07-21 Priya Dames, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Jul. 21—Mosquito bites cause over one million deaths a year by infecting people with lethal illnesses, from yellow fever to malaria.

NC State University scientists and research partners have invented a fabric that they hope will save lives by shielding people from some of those bites.

The fabric is three times more resistant to mosquito bites than insecticide-treated cloth, according to a study published in the journal Insects this month.

The team of textile and insect experts wanted to create material that could protect people without exposing them to pesticides. To get there, they leveraged an unexpected tool: math.

"Our premise here is: why do we need an insecticide-treated textile when you can do it, now that you know a mathematical formula, without chemistry?" said Michael Roe, an NC State professor of entomology.

When they need blood to nourish eggs, female mosquitoes are biting machines. Different species bite the same way, Roe said. They use their head, antennae, and a very long mouth part, called the proboscis, to penetrate clothing and skin to suck people's blood.

To better understand how females bite, Roe and his collaborators, including scientists at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, studied mosquito behavior and the dimensions of their heads, antennae and mouths. They used the data to build a mathematical model of a fabric that would be protective.

They learned that the shielding power of a fabric depends on two things. One is the size of gaps between a fabric's fibers. That determines how much of a mosquito's head, antennae, and proboscis can get through. The second is the thickness of the fabric. When thick enough, the fabric is a barrier.

After the researchers made a new fabric, they tested it against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a species that can infect people with potentially fatal yellow fever, Zika, and dengue fever.

Preventing disease-bearing mosquitoes from biting is complicated. Some bite during the day, others strike at night. The World Health Organization recommends several things to shield people, including clothes that cover as much of the body as possible, sleeping with pesticide-treated bed nets and wearing chemical insect repellent.

The NC State researchers have started a company called Vector Textiles that will commercialize the technology to make the garments, including shirts, out of the fabric. One road block the group will have to overcome is getting people to want to wear the garments, said William Pan, a Duke University associate professor of global environmental health.

Different regions have different ways of dressing depending on culture and climate. The new fabric will have to overcome these barriers in order to gain widespread use.

"I think they've gone over the big hurdle of creating the fabric and proving that it can work," Pan said. "Now the question is: can you get people to use it?"

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, NC State researchers started developing the fabric over 10 years ago. They later received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and others to turn their fabric into bite-resistant uniforms.

The group stepped up their efforts when Zika emerged in the United States in 2016, said Roe.

That disease worried many because it can cause devastating birth defects when pregnant women are infected. Pregnant women reported spraying themselves with insect repellent every morning, Roe said, which raised concerns about their and their fetuses' exposure to insecticides too.

In 2017, Andre West, associate professor of textile and apparel, technology and management at NC State, designed a collection of mosquito resistant garments for pregnant women using funding the group received from NC State to start Vector Textiles.

The NC team is looking for more funding to continue their studies to try to protect people from mosquitoes carrying malaria. In 2019, 409,000 people died of malaria worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of them were young children living in Africa.

They have prototyped a onesie, a bodysuit for infants, made out of their bite-resistant cloth.

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