Sunday, 16 January 2011

SOS: Save our Science - Preventing Pandemic

Hey! I've been busy finishing my first project and after some last minute panicking it's all over and I'm moving on from chickens to yeast, but before I do I wanted to share this new story. A breakthrough in preventing the spread of Bird Flu, that has applications in protecting against a wide range of other viruses. This is the sort of story I've been looking forward to writing for a while, I hope you'll see why.

A group of researchers may have found a way to prevent the spread of bird flu through domestic populations, a revolution which could significantly reduce the risk of humans becoming infected. Not only that, but this technique could be easily used to protect against any viral infection in almost any species. It could even eventually be used to protect ourselves. This method requires no vaccinations and provides life-long protection from a broad range of different avian flu strains.

The tests were performed using domestic chickens. Treated chickens infected with a very high dose of flu virus became ill and died within a few days, but very few (<20%) of the chickens they lived with became infected. Under normal circumstances 70% of chickens became infected and died. With lower doses of virus a few treated chickens survived and the virus did not infect others. Careful investigation showed that some viruses did spread from treated chickens to their neighbours but was insufficient to cause illness.

A domestic chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) (Source)

What is most exciting about this new approach is that it could prevent the spread of all influenza A viruses, that includes Bird Flu and Swine Flu along with many of the normal flu strains. Also, because of the way it targets the virus, this treatment would protect against any new influenza A stains that have yet to be identified!

Avian Flu (H5N1) shown in gold, inside cells (green) (source)

What is holding back this wonder treatment? Why are all our chickens, pigs, sheep and cows not already being made resistant to deadly infections? What are they waiting for? Well it all comes down to public approval. This new method, which could protect us from numerous cross-species pandemics; that could prevent mass culling, vastly improve agricultural productivity and save us all money is genetic modification. These treated chickens were born with a small sequence inserted into their genome, in every cell of their bodies, which blocks flu virus replication. A tiny piece of DNA, no different to any other, which can do all of this and could have such massive impact on human health and safety.

The global spread of H5N1 (Source)

Although there are still tests to be done, initial results show no ill-effects in these chickens. Once the treatment is proven safe, all domestic stocks could easily be replaced in just a few years. It is not a perfect solution as we can only protect our domestic species; wild species would still be susceptible to infections, we can’t replace them all with modified equivalents. But I’m sure we would all feel safer knowing that our food sources are protected from the ravages of pestilence and that we have insulated ourselves against global pandemic.

But that’s not all! Another story out earlier this month unveiled the environmentally friendly pig! A normal pig cannot process certain phosphorus based chemicals (phosphates). The results are often toxic or can severely unbalance the ecosystem, especially in waterways. These new GM pigs, these “Enviropigs” can make proper use of phosphates, which means they need less food and produce less waste, with less harmful environmental effects. The applications of GM seem nearly limitless, improving food production, saving money and preventing illness being just some of the more obvious. Where will it go next? And should it be allowed to go there?

Lyall, J., Irvine, R., Sherman, A., McKinley, T., Nunez, A., Purdie, A., Outtrim, L., Brown, I., Rolleston-Smith, G., Sang, H., & Tiley, L. (2011). Suppression of Avian Influenza Transmission in Genetically Modified Chickens Science, 331 (6014), 223-226 DOI: 10.1126/science.1198020

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