Cru­cial work to keep lethal strain in check

Birmingham Post - - FEATURE -

PRO­FES­SOR Bed­son and his small team were in­volved in work clas­si­fy­ing pox viruses of which small­pox is one of many.

Although he had trav­elled to the front­line to see erad­i­ca­tion work be­ing car­ried, his forte was re­search­ing if and how small­pox may evolve or mu­tate at some point af­ter the world was de­clared free of the wretched virus.

“The worry was that these viruses, they’re out in cen­tral Africa and places like that, may cause in­fec­tions in hu­mans,” says Hugh Pen­ning­ton.

“It is very im­por­tant to be able to tell whether they are small­pox or not, whether small­pox has gone away or hid­den some­where, whether these viruses are go­ing to mu­tate into viruses like small­pox.

“It’s ab­so­lutely cru­cial to clas­sify them, ba­si­cally do de­tailed fin­ger­prints on them, but the meth­ods be­ing used at time, were by to­day’s stan­dards hope­lessly crude.

The com­pli­cated pro­ce­dure in­volved pro­tein anal­y­sis us­ing poly­acry­lamide gels and work­ing with the viruses and mem­branes of eggs at dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­tures – it was well be­fore the days of the DNA typ­ing now avail­able.

And it was work which Prof Pen­ning­ton thinks was largely done by then Phd stu­dent Linda Harper.

“It wasn’t Henry Bed­son that was ac­tu­ally do­ing the pipet­ting and har­vest­ing, he might have drifted into the lab from time to time but he was the head man, you know, he was sit­ting in his of­fice, fac­ulty meet­ings and all that kind of stuff.

“I’m only mak­ing as­sump­tions, but that would be what would be ex­pected.

“I didn’t even re­call him be­ing all that ac­tive in the lab in 1969.”

The com­plex­ity of the work, grow­ing virus in a petri dish in the pres­ence of ra­dioac­tive sul­phur and us­ing spe­cial slic­ing tech­niques was “re­ally fid­dly”.

“Linda (Harper) was do­ing all that kind of stuff, be­cause it would take you sev­eral months to work your­self up to do­ing it prop­erly and get­ting the re­sults that were suit­able.

“But it all needed at­ten­tion to de­tail and that was what Henry was good at.

“I know the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion though very highly of the work and it needed to be to done just to sort of wrap up small­pox com­pletely so we didn’t worry about these viruses com­ing out of mon­keys in the jun­gle or rats.

“We had to be ab­so­lutely cer­tain so that we could ba­si­cally, not rest con­tent, but at least know ex­actly where we stood with these wild viruses, non-hu­man viruses that did oc­ca­sion­ally in­fect peo­ple.”

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