Genetic switch to guard against escaped ‘superviruses’
by Priya Shetty
13 August 2013
It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood disaster movie: scientists tinker with a flu virus to make it more deadly, only for the mutant strain to escape and trigger a pandemic.
Yet flu scientists are currently at loggerheads over experiments to make the H7N9 bird influenza virus that emerged in China earlier this year even more dangerous.
Some argue that “gain of function” experiments to make the virus more infectious, more deadly and drug resistant in ferrets – the best available test animal for human flu – offer up vital information that could help us defend against a pandemic.
Other scientists are concerned that deliberately creating a supervirus could provide a weapon to bioterrorists. What’s more, they point out, existing biosafety measures – such as requiring researchers to wear special safety suits and go through decontamination chambers when leaving the lab – may not be enough to prevent the virus spreading.
Now, a team led by Benjamin tenOever, at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, has devised a genetic failsafe that would switch off mutant strains if they escaped from the lab and infected humans.