Bird flu fear on GM chicken virus (10/4/2004)

Easter wouldn't be Easter without a nice chicken story and this one comes courtesy of the lads in the lab at Imugene Limited, a commercial spinoff from Austrlia's public scientific research body CSIRO.

It was of course CSIRO scientists who in 2001 genetically engineered a strain of the mousepox virus so lethal that would have killed all mice exposed to it. This accidental discovery arose out of trying to develop a genetically engineered mouse contraceptive. The CSIRO scientists then published their research, helpfully highlighting its potential application to smallpox.

Although CSIRO is promoted as Australia's pre-eminent public science organisation, in reality it is one of the most corporate-friendly public science bodies in the world. According to CSIRO's former chief executive, John Stocker, 'Working with the transnationals makes a lot of sense... Yes, we do find that it is often the best strategy to get into bed with these companies .'

CSIRO scientists have consequently been very active in the promotion of genetic engineering.

1.Bird flu fear on GM chook virus
2.Scientists Make Killer Mousepox Strain

1.Bird flu fear on GM chook virus
By Leigh Dayton, Science writer
The Weekend Australian, April 10, 2004

A PLAN to infect 5000 chickens with a genetically modified virus has sounded alarm bells among scientists who fear the designer microbe could become a deadly new disease like bird flu.

Critics say the risk is so high that the trial should be banned.

"We're so worried about new and emerging diseases like SARS and the West Nile virus in the US, we have to be absolutely vigilant," Australian National University viral immunologist Arno Mullbacher said.

He and others argue that the biotech firm behind the project, CSIRO spinoff Imugene Limited, has failed to provide evidence that the virus won't mutate or spread with unpredictable results.

Imugene's goal is a vaccine to boost the immune systems of commercial chooks, now treated with antibiotics to enhance growth. Scientists warn that overuse of antibiotics in animals is breeding drug-resistant bugs that infect people.

Imugene scientists have inserted chicken immune cells into the fowl adenovirus (FAV).

Imugene chief scientific officer Mike Sheppard said laboratory tests and previous field trials - conducted under high security by the CSIRO - suggested that the rebuilt FAV boosted chicken growth by 8 per cent and would not infect other animals.

"In (laboratory) testing we've not been able to grow the (FAV) virus ... in anything but chicken cells," he said.

ANU viral immunologist Ian Ramshaw agrees Imugene's GM virus probably is safe.

"One never says never in these situations, but my view is that there would be a minimum chance of (mutations) occurring, based on the evidence we have at this stage," Professor Ramshaw said.

Tony Peacock, head of the Co-operative Research Centre for Pest Animal Control, agreed and added: "I'm greatly encouraged that an Australian company is taking an Australian development further."

But ANU visiting virologist Adrian Gibbs disagreed: "In my mind it's a recipe for disaster." Professor Gibbs has reviewed details of Imugene's proposal to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and says it contains "major scientific flaws".

If Imugene gets the green light, field trials would begin soon at three CSIRO sites in Victoria. But approval hit a snag this week.

When The Weekend Australian contacted the OGTR, a spokeswoman said regulator Sue Meek had just decided to "stop the clock" on the application, posted last December on the OGTR's website, and would require more details from Imugene.

2.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.
October 31, 2003

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.

By Randall Parker at 2003 October 31 05:48 PM  Dangers Biowarfare | TrackBack  

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