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Mawethu Bilibana
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Controversial Bird-Flu: Should We Be Worried?

03 May 2012, 15:17

As scientist I believe scientific studies are necessary to alert the world to the possibility. Is the same reason I though of shown the above protein cartoon a very special part of flu virus. In fact, a national security advisory board didn’t even want you to see this. So feast your eyes.

Few years ago scientists wondered if one reason that H5N1 does a lousy job of spreading in humans is that it struggles to invade human cells. So they introduced mutations into the gene, producing a vast collection of mutant H5N1. They then offered the viruses a chance to infect some cells. For their experiment, the researches used turkey blood cells, which they had studded with the human surface protein that flu viruses attach to. They washed away all the viruses except for the ones that were anchored to the cells.

Through this process, the scientists discovered one particularly human-loving form of H5N1 haemagglutinin. The gene for the protein contained four new mutations. (The figure above illustrates the protein, with the four mutations labeled. The yellow ball is where the protein grabs onto a human cell.) Three of the mutations altered the shape of the protein, while the fourth had a subtler effect. It changed the pH level at which the protein fuses to the cell and allows the genetic material inside the virus to enter the cell. The fact that no one could predict any of these details in advance demonstrates how little we still know about the flu.

Now that the scientists had a gene for human-loving H5N1 haemagglutinin, they inserted it into a human virus. They chose the so-called swine flu strain that burst on the scene in 2009 and then, fortunately, proved to be relatively mild as flu viruses go. (This strain is known as H1N1.) With a little engineering, they produced a swine flu virus studded with the mutant H5N1 haemagglutinin proteins.

The scientists injected this hybrid virus into the noses of ferrets, and it replicated nicely inside them. In later experiments, the scientists found that the virus could spread from one ferret to another. None of the ferrets died, however.

This experiment was artificial, of course, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t resemble what happens in nature. Same scientists, believed that mixing H5N1 and H1N1 viruses together in a flask, they will readily produce hybrids on their own. What’s more, pigs can get infected with H5N1 and H1N1 at the same time, so they could well be acting as mixing vessels for the viruses.

A hybrid H5N1/H1N1 virus–like any new human flu virus–is a worrisome prospect. But the fact remains that, at least in ferrets, it’s not all that scary. The scarier prospect is that H5N1 bird flu might be able to evolve the same four mutations engineered by the Wisconsin team in their experiment. It’s possible that such a virus would be able to slip easily into humans, but have the same lethality as today’s bird-adapted H5N1. No one can say whether such a virus would behave this way, however. Perhaps the four mutations engineered by the Wisconsin team only works successfully in the company of genes from the 2009 H1N1 virus. There’s only one way to find out: directly engineer those four mutations into bird flu and see what happens to the ferrets.

However, appears to be what Fouchier and his Dutch colleagues essentially did. Based on presentations he’s given and on news articles, it seems that the Dutch scientists introduced mutations into H5N1 bird flu and then carried out an evolutionary experiment. They injected the viruses into ferrets, let them replicate, and then drew out newly replicated viruses to administer to another ferret. The viruses mutated inside the ferrets. Some of the mutations sped up their replication, and those mutant viruses came to dominate the population. They were thus more likely to be picked out by the scientists. Eventually, the scientists had evolved viruses that could float from one ferret to another. They then took a look at the genes of the evolved viruses to see which mutations had turned them into mammal flu.

In conclusion, is such research necessary? Some expert believes scientists shouldnt tampering with the flu this way, they should be doing unquestionably valuable research such as developing a universal flu vaccine. 

for more info!

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