Biotechnology is going to dramatically change our world over the next generation. There has been a lot of chatter in the media, but most of the therapies available aren’t yet available in everyday medical settings. When that wave hits, it is going to change medicine forever. The treatments and systems in the hospital of 2037 may have little relation to anything we are familiar with today. The reason is quite simply the combination of genetics and biotechnology. The ability to splice, dice and combine, and treat disease—or even viruses like the horsepox virus —and malady at the genetic level is probably a greater breakthrough than anesthesia or penicillin.
A critical factor in making gene therapies work is the ability to deliver the treatment sequences to the patient’s DNA. Researchers across the world are looking for techniques—often in the form of viruses—to carry out that task efficiently and without risk to the patient.
With this goal in mind, researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada revived the extinct horsepox virus using the information on the genome and fragments of existing DNA from other sources. The research was done to use the relatively benign but extinct horsepox virus as a transport method to create a better smallpox vaccine.
Reviving an Extinct Virus: The Horsepox Virus
The project was funded by the pharmaceutical company Tonix. The work took researchers several months and involved 212,000 base pairs. The fragments used to splice together the virus were each 30,000 base pairs in length and delivered to the laboratory via post. The hope of the researchers is to develop an on-demand system for creating a virus to be used in preventing or defeating much deadlier diseases like cancer. The entire effort had a budget of around $100,000, which is quite cost-effective considering the benefits that could arise from a new vaccine system.
The horsepox virus can also be used to introduce the vaccinia virus for cancer-fighting systems. This feat, however bold and disruptive, is not without dangers. The method used by virologist David Evans and research associate Ryan Noyce has shown that it is possible to recreate any virus with a relatively small budget.
Is the Revival of Extinct Virus Good or Bad?
Nature and Science magazines have refused to publish the research papers due to the danger that it can be used by terrorists to create massively destructive bioweapons. The researchers, on the other hand, defended their work by saying that the paper does not give enough details to create an actual virus. Aside from funding, teams who plan to recreate the groundbreaking work only need qualified research personnel and access to DNA. The problem with such a weapon, of course, is that it can also be accidentally released and infect the researchers as well as the nearby population. Although this scenario is the plot for many a Sci-Fi film, the possibility is significant enough to warrant caution.
Tonix is using the horsepox virus in its development and testing of vaccines against viruses. The traditional method of vaccine development made use of live animals infected with a deadly virus. The animal’s antibodies would then be extracted and used to create the vaccine.
On an important note, deadly diseases and viruses are strictly controlled by government agencies. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have a large repository of deadly viruses. These are kept under constant monitoring to ensure that they are not stolen or otherwise escape to the outside world. These diseases are kept for the purpose of study and for creating vaccines against them.
Warnings from the Past & Possibilities for the Future
In the past, there have been cases where weaponized anthrax has been sent to individuals via mail in the form of a powder. The CDC has been monitoring and fighting these occurrences. The knowledge of DNA splicing methods is fairly common. For instance, researchers use synthetic biology to improve food stock—otherwise known as genetically modified organisms (GMO). For extinct viruses, scientists use a sample of the virus DNA. And DNA fragments can be used to recreate the whole using almost the same tools and techniques used to create GMOs. Still, it is not as if dinosaurs are going to crawl out and escape from the lab through the use of DNA fragments.
Indeed, it is also true that we are already reviving viruses from the past. Nevertheless, viruses are less complex organisms. Also, the horsepox virus is relatively safe for humans and even horses, which may have made it a prime candidate for revival. It does not pose any threat even if there was a breakout. In fact, it makes an ideal candidate for many new treatment avenues and therapies. Undoubtedly, gene therapy and recombination are rapidly changing the world of medicine and opening bold new possibilities for the future.