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Park People: Mattia Poletto, R&D Programme Lead at Oxitec

Published on 25 May 2022

This month, we caught up with Mattia Poletto, R&D Programme Lead at Oxitec – learning more about their work aiming to eradicate the vectors of diseases such as malaria and dengue as well as their growing programmes in Africa and the Americas.

Hi Mattia! Can you tell us a bit about Oxitec in your own words…

Oxitec is an innovative and fast-growing biotechnology company with the overarching aim to build a healthy, sustainable future for humankind. We do this by developing safe, sustainable, and chemical-free biological pest control solutions that cause no harm to the environment.

Insect pests, such as mosquitos and moth caterpillars, are a growing global problem, set to intensify as our climate changes over time. At Oxitec, our Friendly™ insects are an innovative and eco-friendly solution to pests that destroy crops, harm livestock and transmit diseases like dengue, Zika or malaria.

We develop and release Friendly™ non-biting, male insects that have what we call a ‘self-limiting gene’ giving the insects shorter life expectancies. In the wild, when these specially developed male insects mate with the invasive females, who are responsible for disease-spreading and harming food supplies, the self-limiting gene is passed onto the offspring.

Over time and generations, this method will decrease the pest insect population until they eventually become extinct, suppressing disease-spreading and food vulnerability in the process.

What does your role as Oxitec’s R&D Programme Lead involve?

I look after all the technical aspects of our Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded projects. This requires me to coordinate all the workstreams that contribute to the success of the research and development of a new Friendly™ product. This starts right from development of the insect strain to prototyping and testing of production methods and carrying out field pilots.

Day-to-day, I spend most of my time at my desk discussing the progress of each piece of work, troubleshooting any issues, and coordinating activities in the laboratory with those in the field. On top of that, I occasionally visit our laboratories to ensure I understand the stages of each process to an appropriate level so I can provide accurate advice as well as being aware of the challenges that the different teams are facing.

What do you enjoy most about your job and working at Oxitec?

I am a molecular biologist by trade, so I have had to learn all our insect-focused processes from scratch since joining Oxitec. However, this is the part of the role I’ve really embraced and find really exciting as I love learning new things every day!

My job allows me to see the bigger picture of all our programmes and as someone who is very organised, I like that my job requires me to bring structure into this space. I find it rewarding to know that every small action I take is making a difference to people’s lives and livelihoods through public health and food sustainability.

Tell us more about an exciting project you’re working on at the moment…

I am currently working on a new international project that we recently gained significant funding for, which will see Oxitec advance and validate its Friendly™ mosquito platform to combat malaria in affected regions across Africa and the Americas.

Malaria still represents a real threat, affecting approximately 250 million people worldwide with children accounting for most of the malaria deaths in some African regions. I feel extremely privileged to be working on such an important and pioneering project.

Additionally, the possibility that this project’s technology could become another instrument in our toolbox against this mosquito-borne disease is both humbling and thrilling.

How does your life and work connect at Milton Park?

Milton Park has numerous spots that are perfect to have meaningful conversations with my team. It’s great to have access to such flexible spaces and is something I’ve found really valuable. In particular, I enjoy using Pierreponts Café at the Innovation Centre to have one-to-ones over a coffee.

Additionally, when the weather allows, team meetings sitting on the grass in one of the many green spaces across the Park are a great way to re-energise the team and enjoy a bit of fresh air!

And finally, what do you enjoy most about working at Milton Park?

My favourite thing about Milton Park is that it is well connected; I commute by bus from Oxford and find it a really straightforward journey to do. Personally, I consider this as the most important aspect of any workplace.

In terms of on-site facilities, the Park’s Innovation Centre is great for hiring out different rooms, the green spaces make for a great opportunity to do the occasional lunch-break jog which can take you right out to the countryside.

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