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The Science of Viruses. Will we ever win?

We have all had some time to try to adjust to this Coronavirus invasion. Sports events were canceled or postponed. Social distancing was practiced by many. Profiteering was practiced by some (including rich, avaricious US Senators). Reflection (hopefully) can still be practiced by all.

Russell Brand has advised us on our self-isolation and how we can use this time for greater good:

A fellow blogger, BeautyBeyondBones, talks about the effects this has on society and how it has forced us to reevaluate our spiritual priorities:

There are several more support resources and blogs and podcasts on the internet, available for anyone who needs comfort and aid. We are now forced to wait this whole thing out and hope for the best. And now we find ourselves staring down the long corridor of the future.

It may seem uncomfortable. What will the future hold?

Is there any way to be free of these types of viral invasions? Or is this the new norm? What if, instead of defunding science for the last 20 years (it began in the G.W. Bush Era—cutting funding to NIH and other scientific research agencies, dumping it all into military industrial complex funding… a trend Obama only pretended to go against, continued by Trump)… What if we had poured 200 or 300 billion dollars per year (less than half of our military budget) into medical science research?

A slap in the face. A new way forward.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Viruses are in a sort of gray area between non-living and alive… the scientific community has gone back and forth on this issue and there has been some debate as to whether or not viruses are in fact living organisms. They do not seem to follow all of the current definitions of life, as parasites depending wholly on their host organism for energy and materials necessary to reproduce. The scientific consensus is that they are not really alive. They are just genetic material enclosed in a protein coating.

They reproduce by invading healthy cells and forcing them to replicate copies of themselves. After this cellular hijacking takes place, the healthy cell eventually bursts, its cell membrane split open, and spills its viral content out, dying in the process. The new viruses are now free to invade other cells.

Yet they cannot invade another cell if they cannot penetrate through the barrier of its membrane. This is a very precise, difficult procedure (I have heard it described by biologists as “several keys and several locks where each key will fit only one specific lock”). A virus has to evolve alongside a host in order to infect it, needing some time to jump between hosts (humans and other animals for example). They have to learn how to pick the lock. This arms race has been going on since the dawn of time. And viruses have become very good at it.

This is why I do not believe the Coronavirus is a bio-engineered weapon (created by humans), as some conspiracy theories say. Nature, given enough time, is much more clever than we are. Humans frequently display bad behavior, greed, selfishness and even violence, and I admit I honestly would not be surprised if I hear, years from now, that this was a bio-engineered weapon used for some nefarious purpose. Yet the truth is probably much more simple (Occam’s Razor – the simplest explanation is usually the correct one). Since the dawn of time, viruses have been in a constant arms race with living organisms to infect and reproduce themselves. And most of the time, without even realizing it, they’ve won.

Time to upgrade the defense

As you can see, viruses are a great enough threat on their own. The thought of a microscopic, non-living thing suddenly becoming capable of killing all living things is scary enough to motivate me to action. How then, can we ever hope to defeat them?

Thankfully for us, research scientists such as Dr. George Church, synthetic biologist at Harvard University, have been working on the problem for several years now. Dr. Church is working on research that will make human cells resistant to viruses. In an early study using E Coli, he found that he could make the cells resistant using a process called recoding, basically rewriting the “codons” or each three letter string of DNA molecular base pairs coded for amino acids, to foil the viral replication process (of hijacking protein-making cellular machinery to duplicate itself).

RECALL: DNA comes in four types of molecular base pairs – adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine (A, T, C, & G).

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

The problem is that recoding every protein in the human genome would be a monumental task. Dr. Church and his research team are looking at other ways (synthesizing a genome from scratch, etc.) to achieve this goal. Dr. Church envisions the day when the code can be changed enough to make cells resistant even to viruses they’ve never characterized before. The virus, expecting a certain code provided by the host, unable to change so many parts of its DNA or RNA at once, cannot mutate to a new point of survivability within said host. In short, it ‘dies’.

Other antiviral projects are also in the works. At the Broad Institute (MIT & Harvard), researchers turned a CRISPR Cas13 RNA-cutting enzyme into an antiviral tool, that can detect and destroy RNA-based viruses invading any human cell. The researchers were able to create a single system that can both detect and treat viral infections, which they named CARVER. A link to their research appears at the end of this post.

There are other areas of research, such as nanoparticles, that may show promise in the future. Nanoparticles are well known to have antiviral properties. With a combination of small particle size (helping to facilitate drug delivery into challenging sites in the human body) and large surface area to volume ratios (ensuring larger drug payloads), nanoparticles could make ideal viral killing agents. Research in this area is ongoing.

Due to the hard work of several individual scientists, a lot of viable, promising scientific research has been achieved. The war against viruses is not over yet. This is one area that science can really provide an answer, if it is allowed to flourish in the future. If our society survives this latest viral invasion, it should, one will hope, emerge in a more efficient, more improved state. Over the last 20 years, we have not dedicated very much money toward the research I described in this article. Funding has always been strained, or inadequate. Now what is our excuse?

How viruses invade:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4788752/pdf/main.pdf

More info on stopping viruses for good:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31607545

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/357

2 comments

  1. I think I’m hopeful about the future and would love to see an era where we are genetically immune.

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