wait a minute, haven’t we seen this movie before?

The easy way to make gene therapy more effective may be to resurrect a virus’ evolutionary ancestors in a lab…

avian flu virus

Scientists are now raising the dead and enslaving them to serve the needs of the living. This is not really much of an exaggeration because that’s exactly what happened when researchers in need of a suitable virus for gene therapy applications decided to create an extinct version of a modern virus by reverse-engineering its evolution and printing the now lost DNA into an empty capsid waiting to be activated. Let’s pause for a second and consider that this is the world that we now occupy. We can traverse the evolutionary tree of an organism and order up the DNA of its ancestors to be 3D printed on command. Beyond being basically horror movie fodder in real life though, this experiment isn’t just an exploration into seeing what’s possible. No, this turning back of the clock might become wildly effective cures for diseases and conditions for which the current treatment just isn’t enough or doesn’t really exist by producing a virus that our immune systems haven’t seen yet, and which repairs our genomes to fix what may one day kill us.

Now, I’ve talked about gene therapy and its promise before. It could combat complex disorders like cystic fibrosis, shrink, or at least arrest the growth of cancers, and eliminate problems that can be traced to single genes by altering them once and for all. While the very first human tests did get off to a rocky start, the technology is now much safer and much better understood, and has been showing some promise. In one inspiring trial, the engineered HIV virus sent an acute strain of pediatric leukemia into remission and showed evidence that precise targeting for gene therapy was definitely possible. However, current approaches have a major limitation before we can get really consistent results and that limitation is us. To be more specific, our immune cells pick up on the viruses’ signatures and attack them before they can do any good. This means a lot of good engineering that would have worked never makes it to its target and the patient just doesn’t react to the therapy. Considering that out immune systems have faced at least some of the strains we can use as therapeutic vectors, there’s not much else we can throw at them.

Or at least not much else that exists, thought the researchers in question here. Our bodies had not seen the viruses they brought back through their modern evolutionary history, so bringing a long lost ancestor back from the dead by identifying which mutations happened over the many generations and reversing them, would find our bodies defenseless. Which is exactly what we’d want for gene therapy. Before our bodies can mount a defense, the infection has spread so far and wide that the therapeutic edits should have had their intended macro effect. Just think of it as sending high altitude stealth bombers and special operations teams instead of flying enough conventional fighter planes and tanks against formidable defenses to get at least some through enemy lines. Just far cooler because it involves resurrecting extinct genomes. But rest easy for now if you’re worried about scientists trying to create a real Jurassic Park with this method. The technology we have now can’t just create mammoth and dinosaur DNA we can use to grow full creatures. Well, at least not yet, though we may have to revisit that question soon enough…

# health // bioengineering / evolution / gene therapies / genetics


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