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Genetic Disease Immunity on the Horizon?

Friday, 15 February, 2008

Researchers at McGill University have genetically engineered mice to be immune to viruses. Well, at least four viruses anyway (influenza virus, encephalomyocarditis virus, VSV and SNV).

Still, let us look at how they did it, and then whether I can get it done to myself so that I don’t need flu shots every year. Firstly, they made some knockout mice for the genes 4E-BP1 and 4E-BP2 (meaning, those genes are deactivated in those mice). Those genes are apparently repressor genes, and decrease the production of immune proteins called interferons. Knock out a repressor, no more repression = more interferons. Because interferons, especially type 1 interferons, have antiviral properties, the mice essentially became immune to the viruses tested.

And, the researchers report no noticeable side-effects. However, given that fact that genes have actually evolved to stop interferon production, I still think we can’t rule out side-effects in future trials.

So, where do we sign up for the genetic mods for viral immunity? You can’t. Because we can’t produce knockout humans (technically, we could, but it would take too long and probably be unethical), and somatic gene therapy (especially gene therapy to deactivate a specific gene*) is still a very young science. And germline modification, in case you were thinking about vaccinating your infants before they are even born, is oh so very illegal (although considering the comparison to infant vaccination I just gave, I challenge anyone to tell me why it should remain illegal).

The researchers, being the clever sorts that they are, suggest an alternative:

“If we are able to target 4E-BP1 and 4E-BP2 with drugs, we will have a molecule that can protect you from viral infection. That’s a very exciting idea.” Dr. Costa-Mattiolo said. “We don’t have that yet, but it’s the obvious next step.

I don’t agree that it is the ‘obvious next step’ (I’d say, ‘good near-term compromise’) but still the idea is ok. I’d rather take a pill to become immune to the flu than catch the flu, but I’d still rather be immune to the flu because my parents had be ‘genetically vaccinated’ as an embryo. What if a flu pandemic hits and the stockpile of the drugs runs out? What if I fall on hard times and can’t afford the drugs (assuming they aren’t fully covered by government health schemes in the country in which I happen to be living at the time)?

Oh well. I guess I’ll have to take this antiviral drug (or benefit from the herd immunity of everyone else taking theirs), and wait for my gene therapy.

*I think an alternative could be to insert additional genes that produce Irf7 – the regulatory protein that has its synthesis repressed by 4E-BP1 and 4E-BP2. Or even add a gene that represses (transcriptionally silences) 4E-BP1 and 4E-BP2.

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