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'Frankenviruses' May Be the Medicines of the Future

10/27/2015 08:35 EDT | Updated 10/27/2016 05:12 EDT
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Serious female chemist working in laboratory

Around this time of year, Canadians begin to prepare for one of the spookiest nights on the calendar, Halloween. In addition to the usual traditions of Trick or Treat, costume parties, and pumpkin carving, we also take time to look back at some of the scarier stories in our fictional culture.

Although vampires and werewolves are all the rage, for good shiver down the spine, nothing beats the story of Frankenstein. The haunting tale penned by Mary Shelley takes us through the journey of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, as he achieves his goal of bringing the dead back to life. It's a fascinating story that takes a tragic turn. Despite the good intentions of the researcher, the overall result is horrific and leads to several deaths.

Raising the dead is entirely fiction in the human perspective. But when it comes to microbes, bringing the departed -- or at least non-functional -- back to viability is possible. Last week, a European group of researchers unveiled how they were able to bring viruses back to life. Though this may appear to be the start of a terror-filled future, the results may actually help us to treat a variety of diseases and perhaps even prevent infections in the future.

The team worked with a specific virus, classic swine fever virus. It's harmless to humans but can cause a rather nasty bout of illness in a variety of pig species, including boars. It's considered a significant pathogen in the pork industry as an outbreak can decimate a herd. Worse, there is no treatment.

One of the abilities of the virus is mutation. It can change itself regularly forming new strains. However, some of these newer versions are unable to compete and eventually end up dying off leaving only the genetic material behind. For the researchers, this was the perfect opportunity to test the theory of regeneration.

First, though, they had to collect and analyze the remnants of the dead viruses. They collected several of these viral corpses in a form of genetic material known as cDNA. TForensic DNA analysis was then performed to determine ancestry and possible cause of death.

With the virus' past life elucidated, the next step was to perform a form of genetic surgery on the cDNA in the hopes of restoring lost traits. Once the reconstruction had been finalized, they put the genetic material back into cultures and waited, hoping for the best.

Sure enough, they began to see signs of life. Viruses began to appear and eventually reproduced. The scientists had accomplished their goal and developed their very own "Frankenviruses." They could now better understand how viruses function and possibly harm animals.

But, while this may be all good news, the idea of creating the living from the dead to some may not seem to be a direction we want to take. After all, much like Victor Frankenstein's creation, if this virus escapes the lab, who knows what toll it could bring. Granted, it wouldn't affect humans but still, this type of research might be thought of as unethical and possibly criminal. Yet, this research may actually help us to develop new medicines including vaccines.

At the moment, the best way to develop living therapeutics, such as a cancer-killing virus is to work with what is already considered to be viable. We may be able to engineer these viruses but there is always the risk of causing a lethal change that ends up killing both the virus and the chances for a therapeutic. But with this study in place, a failure may be resurrected by simply keeping the genetic material in stasis and eventually figuring out what went wrong. This could inevitably speed up development and eventual testing in clinical trials.

But cancer may not be the most important arena for this discovery. That belongs to the flu. We've all heard about vaccines that have missed the mark, leaving people more vulnerable to infection. Part of this deals with the necessity to develop viable strains in the lab. Though we may be able to develop the perfect candidate for a particular strain, it may simply not work.

With the results of this current study, even those viruses that didn't make it could be collected, analyzed, repaired, and then brought back to life. This could eventually lead to more accuracy and less overall risk to those who get the shot. The technique could also be done quickly so that less time would be needed to make the vaccine.

To the authors, this study was all about understanding virus evolution and how these changes can affect life and death. But the results provide a path towards more effective routes for medicine and vaccine development. It will take time before raising dead viruses is used on a wider scale. Yet, unlike Victor Frankenstein, the actual outcomes will no doubt meet the aspirations and leave us not in terror, but in thanks.

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