Killer virus: An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon http://www.newscientist.com/dailynews/news.jsp?id=ns9999311
A virus that kills every one of its victims, by wiping out part of their immune system, has been accidentally created by an Australian research team. The virus, a modified mousepox, does not affect humans, but it is closely related to smallpox, raising fears that the technology could be used in biowarfare.
The discovery highlights a growing problem. How do you stop terrorists taking legitimate research and adapting it for their own nefarious purposes?
The Australian researchers had no intention of producing a killer virus. They were merely trying to make a mouse contraceptive vaccine for pest control. "But it's a good way to show how to alter smallpox to make it more virulent," says Ken Alibek, former second-in-command of the civilian branch of the Soviet germ-warfare programme.
Ron Jackson of CSIRO's wildlife division and Ian Ramshaw at the Australian National University, both in Canberra, inserted into a mousepox virus a gene that creates large amounts of interleukin 4. IL-4 is a molecule that occurs naturally in the body. As part of a study aimed at creating a contraceptive vaccine, they were trying to stimulate antibodies against mouse eggs, which would make the animals infertile. The mousepox virus was merely a vehicle for transporting the egg proteins into mice to trigger an antibody response. The researchers added the gene for IL-4 to boost antibody production. The surprise was that it totally suppressed the "cell-mediated response"--the arm of the immune system that combats viral infection.
Mousepox normally causes only mild symptoms in the type of mice used in the study, but with the IL-4 gene added it wiped out all the animals in nine days. "It would be safe to assume that if some idiot did put human IL-4 into human smallpox they'd increase the lethality quite dramatically," says Jackson. "Seeing the consequences of what happened in the mice, I wouldn't be the one who'd want to do the experiment."
To make matters worse, the engineered virus also appears unnaturally resistant to attempts to vaccinate the mice. A vaccine that would normally protect mouse strains that are susceptible to the virus only worked in half the mice exposed to the killer version. "It's surprising how very, very bad the virus is," says Ann Hill, a vaccine researcher from Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. If bioterrorists created a human version of the virus, vaccination programmes would be of limited use.
GM Killer Mouse Virus Sparks Bioweapon Fears
Wednesday January 10 6:45 PM ET
LONDON (Reuters) - Australian scientists have inadvertently created a killer mouse virus using technology that could be applied to biological warfare, New Scientist magazine said on Wednesday.
The genetically modified virus is harmless to humans. But it was made by inserting a gene that produces a molecule called interleukin 4 (IL-4) into a mouse virus similar to smallpox, sparking fears that a lethal human virus could also be engineered.
“It would be safe to assume that if some idiot did put human IL-4 into human smallpox they'd increase the lethality quite dramatically,'' said Ron Jackson, the researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CISRO) in Canberra who helped to create the virus.
New Scientist said the new lethal virus highlights a growing international problem -- how to stop terrorists from using scientific research to create deadly weapons.
Jackson and his colleague Ian Ramshaw of the Australian National University in Canberra informed the Australian Department of Defense (news - web sites) about their research before submitting it for publication in the Journal of Virology, where it is due to appear next month.
``We wanted to warn the general population that this potentially dangerous technology is available,'' said Jackson.
``We wanted to make it clear to the scientific community that they should be careful, that it is not difficult to create severe organisms,'' he added.
Jackson and Ramshaw were trying to create a contraceptive mouse vaccine to control pests when they inserted the IL-4 gene in a mousepox virus to create large amounts of IL-4.
The molecule occurs naturally in the body and the researchers thought increased amounts would cause the mice to produce antibodies against their eggs making them infertile. But nine days after they vaccinated the animals all of them died. The virus had wiped out part of their immune system.
The researchers said a vaccine that would normally protect the mice against strains of the virus was only effective in half of the animals exposed to the new virus.