Monday, May 19, 2014

Treating the Unthinkable: Vaccine Development for Unknown Synthetic Viruses

Developing a vaccine against any illness is difficult and time consuming but theneed for rapid vaccine production becomes even more important against emerging infectious diseases like H1N1 flu. One of the biggest hurdles in creating an influenza vaccine has to do with the virus itself. "In conventional vaccine making you need the actual virus that causes the disease," says Phil Dormitzer, who leads a team of vaccine researchers at Novartis. "The bottleneck has been for a vaccine manufacturer to get its hands on a suitable vaccine virus."

But what if the disease we are trying to prevent is unknown, synthetically derived and possibly created in a clandestine warfare lab? As I've previously discussed, DARPA's Blue Angel program and Medicago, have successfully overcome the production lag time issue for flue vaccine production, however, what would happen if a synthetic virus unknown at this point, were able to be either accidentally or deliberately released? While I personally remain a strong proponent of synthetic biology, and political arguments aside, are we ready to treat in a mass casualty context, synthetic illnesses? 

In 2010, DARPA invested 6 million in a project called 'BioDesign.'Wired and Popular Science have both written on this topic. Essentially, Bio-Design would override evolution and 'eliminate the randomness of natural evolutionary enhancement." DARPA would create molecules that bolster cell resistance to death and ultimately program cells to live indefinitely. Additionally, cells would be programmed with a kill switch. According to DARPA as stated in Wired (see:, BioDesign could be used to "Develop strategies to create a synthetic organism 'self-destruct' option to be implemented upon nefarious removal of organism." The project comes as DARPA also plans to throw 20 Million into a new synthetic biology program, and 7.5 million into increasing several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes." Could DARPA's synthetic biology programs develop applications for countering synthetic diseases and thus remove synthetically derived diseases from the arsenal of would-be bio terrorists or states? 
Homeland Security
 Newswire published a piece entitled: Day of Synthetic Pathogens Based Bio-Terrorism Nears' ( their 2010 observations at the time of publication remain relevant today:

"The problem is that now you can make DNA. For a number of these, you really don't need to have access to the the sample. The genome of these pathogens are in publicly available databases," said Jean Peccoud, an associate professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech. "For a few thousand dollars you can get the Ebola genome." Under the auspices of researcher and combating infectious agents, scientists in 2008 used synthetic biology to recreate SARS virus. Three years earlier, researchers successfully reconstructed the 1918 flu virus, which caused a worldwide pandemic estimated to have killed fifty million people. Eventually, it will almost certainly be possible to recreate bacterial pathogens like smallpox. We might also be able to enhance these pathogens. Some work in Australia on mousepox suggests ways of making smallpox more potent, for example. In theory, entirely new pathogens could be created.' Hastings Center Report Editor Gregory Kaebnick said in congressional testimony during a May hearing on Capital Hill."  

DARPA's Living Foundries Program certainly seems up to the challenge of developing counter-measures to synthetic disease. While we are much closer to being able to identify and possibly develop vaccines rapidly to treat unknown synthetic pathogenic agents, I believe if faced  with this scenario today, we would struggle to respond. It is therefore essential we continue to investment in bio-defence programs and maintain our focus on the horizon of synthetically produced biological warfare agents.
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