To im­prove vac­cine, re­searchers cre­ate cousin of small­pox virus

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JOEL ACHENBACH AND LENA H. SUN joel.achenbach@wash­post.com lena.sun@wash­post.com Ariana Eun­jung Cha and Sarah Ka­plan con­trib­uted to this re­port. More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/speak­ing-of-sci­ence

Sci­en­tists have used com­mer­cially avail­able ge­netic ma­te­rial to piece to­gether the ex­tinct horse­pox virus, a cousin of the small­pox virus that killed as many as a bil­lion hu­man be­ings be­fore be­ing erad­i­cated.

The lab­o­ra­tory achieve­ment was re­ported Thurs­day in a news ar­ti­cle in the jour­nal Sci­ence.

The lead re­searcher, David Evans, a molec­u­lar vi­rol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Alberta, told The Wash­ing­ton Post that his ef­forts are aimed at de­vel­op­ing vac­cines and can­cer treat­ments. There is noth­ing dan­ger­ous about the syn­thetic horse­pox virus, which is not harm­ful to hu­mans.

Evans has not yet pub­lished his find­ings in a sci­en­tific jour­nal — how to re­port this kind of re­search is nec­es­sar­ily fraught for the ed­i­tors of such jour­nals — but he did dis­cuss them at a meet­ing on small­pox re­search last Novem­ber at the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion in Geneva. A re­port on the meet­ing pub­lished by the WHO noted that Evans had re­ceived ap­proval from reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties for his work, but the re­port added that those au­thor­i­ties may not have fully ap­pre­ci­ated the need for reg­u­la­tion of the steps in­volved in syn­the­siz­ing a vir­u­lent pathogen.

Evans said he has ap­plied for a patent and is col­lab­o­rat­ing with a com­mer­cial com­pany, Tonix Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. In a news re­lease, Tonix said it hopes to use the horse­pox virus to de­velop a new vac­cine for small­pox that is safer than the one avail­able, which can have se­ri­ous side ef­fects.

Small­pox, the dead­li­est dis­ease in hu­man his­tory, was for­mally de­clared erad­i­cated in 1980. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and vi­rol­o­gists have long de­bated whether to de­stroy the ex­ist­ing sam­ples of small­pox, kept un­der close guard at the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion as well as in gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties in Rus­sia. One ar­gu­ment against do­ing so, ad­vanced by Evans and oth­ers, is that de­stroy­ing them would not con­clu­sively get rid of small­pox, be­cause there could be un­known caches hid­den some­where, and that, in any case, modern tech­niques would be able to syn­the­size the virus based on al­ready pub­lished ge­netic se­quences.

Evans’s ex­per­i­ment, ac­cord­ing to Sci­ence, re­quired about $100,000, a rel­a­tively mod­est sum, and used com­mer­cially avail­able ge­netic ma­te­rial. Com­pa­nies sell scraps of cloned DNA that sci­en­tists stitch to­gether. Laws re­strict ac­cess to small­pox genes, how­ever, and Evans said that even a highly cre­den­tialed re­searcher would not be able to ob­tain such ma­te­rial: “You’d prob­a­bly get a call from the FBI if you tried.”

Evans said he was not seek­ing pub­lic­ity and wished that news or­ga­ni­za­tions would not make a “fuss” about his work. “The fact we’re talk­ing about it is, to some ex­tent, in­creas­ing the risk.”

Tom Frieden, for­mer head of the CDC, said the break­through high­lights the need to mon­i­tor more closely “dual-use” ex­per­i­ments — re­search that could be used for pro­tec­tive pur­poses or, in the­ory, to cre­ate a deadly pathogen. “It is a brave new world out there with the abil­ity to re-cre­ate or­gan­isms that ex­isted in the past or cre­ate or­gan­isms that have never ex­isted,” said Frieden, who fa­vors lim­it­ing the num­ber of such ex­per­i­ments and in­sti­tu­tions where they can take place.

The broader story here, Frieden said, is that the United States and other coun­tries need to be pre­pared for emerg­ing pathogens, which can and will ap­pear nat­u­rally — no lab­o­ra­tory nec­es­sary.

That sen­ti­ment was echoed by An­thony Fauci, head of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases. “The dan­ger of nat­u­rally evolv­ing mi­crobes — like Zika, like pan­demic in­fluenza, like Ebola — that nat­u­rally evolve, are much more of a threat to civ­i­liza­tion than the pos­si­bil­ity that some­one might be able to syn­the­size a mi­crobe,” Fauci told The Post. “Peo­ple should con­cen­trate on what we’ve been talk­ing about for a long time: get­ting our­selves pre­pared for the nat­u­ral emer­gence in na­ture of mi­crobes that could threaten us.”

Small­pox vac­ci­na­tion pro­grams ceased decades ago af­ter the virus stopped cir­cu­lat­ing widely. To­day, a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans have never been vac­ci­nated against it, one mo­ti­va­tion for re­searchers to study the virus in case it re­turns.

“We are still strug­gling with how to man­age the dual-use dilemma. How do we get the ben­e­fit of the re­search with­out the risk of it be­ing turned against us?” said Alta Charo, a law pro­fes­sor and bioethi­cist at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin.

Peter Jahrling, di­rec­tor of NIH’s In­te­grated Re­search Fa­cil­ity, praised Evans’s work. “I think he did a ter­rific ser­vice. You had a lot of peo­ple say­ing this can’t be done. And he said ‘Yes, it can.’ ” Jahrling said this kind of work could be repli­cated by other re­searchers. “Maybe not some guy in a cave,” Jahrling said. “But a rea­son­ably equipped un­der­grad­u­ate mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy lab could re­peat this trick.”

Still, re­stric­tions are in place to pre­vent small­pox DNA from fall­ing into the wrong hands. In the United States, ex­per­i­ments that are iden­ti­fied as Dual Use Re­search of Con­cern go through an ad­di­tional round of re­view by fund­ing agencies and must in­clude a risk mit­i­ga­tion plan in their de­sign. Last year, the WHO rec­om­mended that no in­sti­tu­tion be al­lowed to pos­sess more than 20 per­cent of the small­pox virus’s genome. Com­pa­nies that pro­duce DNA for re­search are re­quired to screen or­ders for matches against known pathogens.

Michael Oster­holm, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for In­fec­tious Dis­ease Re­search and Pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, said sim­i­lar work is prob­a­bly oc­cur­ring around the planet.

“The ques­tion is: How many other peo­ple have done it? We never thought or ex­pected it to come from a place like Alberta,” he said. “It’s not one of the lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties in the world for mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy.”

Oster­holm said the U.S. gov­ern­ment is un­pre­pared to han­dle an emer­gency in­volv­ing a syn­thetic pathogen — par­tic­u­larly given that many se­nior po­si­tions have not been filled by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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