Second Paper - Biotechnology and Society Biowarfare Seminar...

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Biotechnology and Society: Biowarfare Seminar Spring '07 2 nd Paper: The feasibility of a chimeric virus such as the one used in the Cobra Virus By Philippe Taieb In the novel “The Cobra Event”, by Richard Preston, terrorists engineered a chimeric virus named “Cobra”. It is a fictional recombinant virus made from the Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus (NPV), the rhinovirus, smallpox and the human gene for Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. NPV is normally an insect virus which attacks the brain and has the ability to convert the body of an insect into 40% virus material by dry weight. The virus particles occur inside large crystals of a protein called polyhedron. Rhinovirus is the common cold virus. It comes in more than one hundred types. Smallpox is the variola virus. It causes blistering and pustules. It is very contagious and highly lethal in people that lack immunity to it. Finally, Lesch-Nyhan syndrome is a genetic disease caused by damage to a single gene. It results in a behavior of self-injury, biting of the lips, fingers, arms and aggression toward other people. Of course, the Cobra virus is only fictional. Nevertheless, it makes us wonder if the technology to engineer such a virus is available and what might be the challenges in creating this virus. The leading question is thus, “Is the engineering of a chimeric virus like “Cobra” feasible?” A chimeric virus is a recombinant virus that contains at least one functional gene from another virus. Such viruses become increasingly important for vaccine development, experimental gene therapy, biowarfare research and for scientific research purposes. But several risks and challenges are involved when creating a chimeric virus. First, there is the physical challenge to insert a new gene in the virus’ genome. As well, the insertion of the new gene may
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disrupt the normal functioning of the virus. Although it cannot always be precisely predicted whether a change in tropism, the process that determines which cells are targeted by the virus, will result in different pathogenicity, criteria are identified that allow for estimates of such events. Genetic engineering can be used for the production of a chimeric virus, which is an artificial virus consisting of a combination of the genetic information from two different viruses. By combining the sequences from two different viruses, the biological properties of a chimeric virus may differ from those of the original parent strains. These changes in biological properties may be intentional or unintentional. (Peeters, p. 5; 7; 11) One of the major challenges with engineering chimeric viruses is that little is still known about viral genetics and host immune response. Thus, scientists are kind of working in the dark when using chimeric viruses and they often obtain unpredicted results. For example, researchers in Germany engineered the Ebola virus to study the mechanisms which are responsible for the high pathogenicity of this particularly dangerous virus. Using a process to recover infectious
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