October 31, 2003
Scientists Make Killer Mousepox Strain For Anti-terrorist Research

Researchers are investigating how to counter the danger posed by the IL-4 gene when inserted into mousepox virus. (also same article here)

SAN FRANCISCO A research team backed by a U.S. federal grant has created a genetically engineered mousepox virus designed to evade vaccines, underscoring biotechnology's deadly potential and stirring debate over whether such research plays into the hands of terrorists.

The team at the University of St. Louis, led by Mark Buller, created the superbug to figure out how to defeat it, a key goal of the government's anti-terrorism plan.

The fear is that terrorists may take the IL-4 gene used in this research and put it into the human smallpox virus instead and thereby perhaps make a much more lethal form of smallpox. It is possible that vaccines would not provide any protection against such a strain of smallpox. IL-4 may effectively disable the immune system and any vaccine development attempts may be futile. Even a vaccine against IL-4 probably wouldn't work because IL-4 serves a useful role in regulating human immunity.

Buller's group is trying out methods to protect against malicious uses of this modification of mousepox..

Now Buller has engineered a mousepox strain that kills 100 per cent of vaccinated mice, even when they were also treated with the antiviral drug cidofovir. A monoclonal antibody that mops up IL-4 did save some, however.

This work replicates and extends upon work first reported back in January 2001 where some Australian CSIRO scientists were accidentally trying to develop a mouse contraceptive and produced an extremely lethal strain of mousepox instead.

Ron Jackson and Ian Ramshaw weren't looking for trouble. Jackson, who works at the Pest Animal Control Cooperative Research Centre in Canberra, and Ramshaw, who is in the same city at the Australian National University, were searching for a way to control the mice that are serious pests in Australia. They wanted to make a contraceptive vaccine by altering the genes of the mousepox virus.


Accidental architect: Ron Jackson co-engineered a particularly virulent form of mousepox. But in January the project gained notoriety after the pair inadvertently created an unusually virulent strain of mousepox. If a similar genetic manipulation were applied to smallpox, the scientists realized, this feared killer could be made even more dangerous. When they published their paper1, it was only after much discussion about the wisdom of drawing attention to the findings. "It has to be brought out into the public arena so the situation can be addressed," argues Ramshaw.

There are a few things to worry about in all this. First of all, Ramshaw's team were not even looking for a way to make mousepox more lethal. This will certainly not be the last time that researchers will accidentally find ways to make pathogens more lethal. Would-be terrorists in the future will find many methods published in the research literature for how to make a wide variety of pathogens more lethal. Just research on why some strains of influenza are more virulent than others will have potential terrorist uses.

This brings up the debate on whether all scientific research should be published in public journals. Are there types of research results that will be so incredibly dangerous that they will make it too easy for nefarious groups to harm others on a massive scale? Will it be harder to defend against such attacks than it will be to use those publically available reports to develop effective defenses? While many proponents of open societies take it as a matter of faith that more openness and availability of information is always better that seems far from a proven position.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 October 31 05:48 PM  Dangers Biowarfare

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