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...Veterinary medical officers Jürgen Richt and Kelly Lager of the ARS National Animal Disease Center (NADC) in Ames, Iowa, are using a process called reverse genetics to gain insight into an alarming development: rapid spread throughout North America of a swine flu type that contains gene segments from birds and humans as well as from pigs.
The researchers, who work in NADC's Virus and Prion Diseases of Livestock Research Unit, are using reverse genetics to create new flu viruses in efforts to explore individual components of the virus. The hope is that these components can in turn be exploited by vaccines....
...What made reverse genetics attractive for exploring the new swine flu strains is that manipulations commonly done on DNA cannot be performed with RNA....
..."Current human and swine vaccines are inactivated vaccines that vary in efficacy, depending on the match of the vaccine with influenza virus strains circulating in the susceptible population," says Richt. "Modified-live-virus vaccines generated through reverse genetics can stimulate a better, broader immune response than killed-virus vaccines."...
Source: Michael Specter, “Nature’s Bioterrorist,” The New Yorker. February 28, 2005, p. 60.
If the avian epidemic does move widely into human populations, as many scientists have predicted, it will mark the first time the world has been able to anticipate a pandemic. For thousands of years, people have rarely known the causes of their illnesses; they have certainly never been warned that an epidemic—whether smallpox, plague, cholera, or influenza—was imminent. Viral genetics has changed that. We can follow the evolution of a virus on a molecular level and gauge its power. Researchers at the C.D.C. [Centers for Disease Control] have just begun crucial experiments in specially protected laboratories where they will attempt to juggle the genetic components of the H5N1 virus. There are two ways to do that. First, the team will infect tissue with both the bird virus and a common human flu virus and see what grows. They will also use the tools of genetics. Molecular biology now allows scientists to break a virus down to its genes; the researchers will disassemble H5N1 and mix it in a variety of combinations with human flu viruses. Then they will test the results on animals.