Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Damocles Sword Problem

I am writing this post for two reasons. The first reason is to test my right to free speech. The second reason is to educate. One person's vaccine is another person's bioweapon. The word vaccine is derived from the Latin word for cow. This is because Edward Jenner used the cowpox virus to immunize people against smallpox.

Now then, the Russians created a Legionella pneumophila strain which contained and expressed a peptide derived from the human myelin protein according to Dr. Serguei Popov. The Legionella successfully infected test animals. They cleared the infection and developed antibodies to both the Legionella and the peptide. In as little as a few days if not a few weeks, the animals died from allergic encephalomyelitis. Scientists can induce the same disease in mice and rat (though abstract says mouse).

If I were to reproduce the Russians' results, I'd have to write away for Legionella strains and materials. I'd start with this paper. I would create a vector based on the Chinese scientists work and this commercial protein expression vector. I might be able to get away with the latter vector just by selecting for growth on growth medium supplemented with ampicillin due to the antibiotic resistance gene/marker on the pMal plasmid. Strains could be obtained from the Chinese group or the American Type Tissue Collection, though I believe that the ATCC must notify the FBI when certain strains are sent overseas or to suspicious addresses, but this could be evaded by using a proxy.

The silly thing is that the same strain engineered with a different peptide gene, such as a gene coding for a peptide derived from the HIV nef gene sequence, might confer a protective immune response to HIV. Or, one could insert the cholera phage into Legionella pneumophila and see if that strain would make a decent vaccine against Vibrio cholera. Maybe not, since the immune response would need to be through the GI tract or Legionella might not express the phage proteins without help. Legionella pneumophila infects via the lungs whereas Vibrio cholera is ingested, and cholera kills by dehydration, but the lungs and GI tract have mucus membranes, so the correct immune response might be programmed any way. Because a prophage (phage living inside a bacterium) is the disease vector, this is why until 1996, there was little progress made in making a cholera live vaccine. It's kind of the same situation with HIV. It lives inside T cells which are the cells that tell the body to mount a response to some bacterial or viral threat.

I hope I've shown that it is the application of knowledge that can be for good or ill. Everything I've written about is from the public record or is commercially available. Any molecular biology undergraduate with $10-20,000 or less could do this research which likely took millions of dollars in the late 1980s. You could probably scale it up for $100K in order to make a biobomb or make enough vaccine for a country. The benefits outweigh the downside, however. It's easier to protect people from a natural disease than protect them from a bioweapon. One reason bioweapons are probably not deployed is the possibility of the bioweapon destroying the instigator's own population. Pathogens are indiscriminate - they kill indiscriminately. They do not respect sect, creed, beliefs, nationality, or any other artificial human thought boundaries. Bioweapons may be the perfect cheap Doomsday Machine. The problem with Doomsday Machines is that you can't keep them secret for them to be effective.

Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn't you tell the world, EH?
Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.


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