What was the Point of This?

I read this in the Guelph Mercury the other day, and all I could think at the end was, “What a waste!” That and “we’ve learned exactly what from this waste?” I’d link to it, but the only way to see this particular article is by subscribing to the paper, so I can’t.

Recreated 1918 virus triggered overwhelming immune response

WINNIPEG (Jan 18, 2007)

The virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic triggered an overwhelming immune response that swamped the lungs of macaque monkeys — the first primates deliberately infected with the Spanish flu virus, Canadian and American scientists reported yesterday.

The research, done in part at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, supports the notion the virulent flu virus turned the body’s immune system against itself.

Scientists believe that theory explains how the devastating influenza strain managed to mow down unprecedented numbers of healthy people in the prime of life.

Previous work, done by some of the same scientists, showed mice infected with the virus also experienced this hyper immune response, a so-called cytokine storm. (Cytokines are one of the proteins the immune system makes to fight infection.)

“There was an uncontrolled or aberrant inflammatory response,” one of the authors, Dr. Michael Katze of the University of Washington in Seattle, explained in a telephone briefing.

“One possibility (is) . . . instead of protecting the individuals that were infected with the highly pathogenic virus, the immune response is actually contributing to the lethality of the virus.”

But a scientist not involved in the work cautioned this theory is still not proven. Adolfo Garcia-Sastre said he believes the extensive damage seen in the lungs of infected animals may have been caused by the virus itself, which grew to extraordinary levels quickly after infection and remained at high levels for days after regular flu strains start to abate.

“You cannot exclude that actually most of the high levels of cytokines that one sees are simply due to high levels of virus loads,” said Garcia-Sastre, a microbiologist at New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center who collaborated with Katze on the earlier mouse study.

This work is the furthest any researchers have gone toward discovering how the Spanish flu, an H1N1 virus, killed an estimated 50 million people around the globe.

“Now we can really dissect what’s happening and we can understand why animals, humans died due to 1918 virus infection,” said principal investigator Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a highly prolific influenza scientist who splits his time between the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo.

But the research shouldn’t be seen as an exercise in archeological microbiology. Cracking the mysteries of highly virulent flu strains could help the world prepare to battle the next bad influenza pandemic, said Darwyn Kobasa, a research scientist with the Winnipeg lab and the first author on the paper.

“Not only is the study of interest to understand what happened in 1918 but it’s also very relevant today as we possibly prepare for a new influenza pandemic caused by an avian H5N1 virus,” said Kobasa, referring to the highly pathogenic flu strain that for more than three years has been decimating poultry flocks in parts of Asia and which has killed over 160 people.

“The H5N1 virus can also cause very serious disease and it appears to do this in a way that’s quite similar to the 1918 virus. We think that a greater understanding of the viruses that caused past pandemics will help us predict what might be expected and how to plan to use our knowledge and resources to reduce the impact of a new pandemic.”

The study, published in the journal Nature, reports on an ambitious project to painstakingly recreate the 1918 virus — only the second time this feat has been achieved. In 2005 scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control made history by becoming the first team to recreate the virus.

The effort that led to this research began a short time later. Working under Kawaoka, researchers at the University of Wisconsin built each of the virus’s eight genes from scratch, using genetic blueprints available from an open access database.

Kawaoka then gave the plasmids — the pieces of DNA in which the genes were inserted — to scientists in Winnipeg. They then transferred or “transfected” the genes into cell culture, allowing them to reassemble and grow in a process called virus “rescue.”

The recreated virus was then used to infect seven macaques housed in a Level 4 laboratory in Winnipeg — the highest level of biosecurity available. The monkeys became so ill they were euthanized after eight days, at which point lung and other tissues were analyzed to chart the damage done.

I wish the media wouldn’t pounce on studies so fast. It’s like as soon as someone’s put something out, no matter how inconclusive it is, the media has to be all over it, trying to simplify it for the masses, and probably misinterpreting it. Hell, they can’t even get quotes right some of the time. I don’t know if it’s so good to throw statistical studies at some of them.

This is the way I took those findings. They rebuilt the Spanish flu that killed a whole pile of people, and injected it into seven poor unfortunate monkeys. Then they watched them get sicker and sicker, finally killed them, hacked them open, and found…something that could be taken one of two ways. Either the virus made the monkeys’ bodies attack themselves, or it was just one hell of a virus and too much for their immune systems. This leaves them…in the exact same place as before, except now, seven monkeys are dead and they’re scratching their heads and thinking of what could be. Thanks guys. That was great.

I know that science works in small steps and you have to amass large amounts of data before you can even support a hypothesis. I know that it can’t be easy getting to the bottom of a mystery like this. I know that every study can be contradicted. But this one seemed like such a waste! They just let them die, which they knew was the inevitable end to that story, and then couldn’t really find anything that was proof for one side or the other. That’s like repeatedly setting buildings on fire and then going, “Well, what do ya know, another one is gone. Hmm. I wonder what exactly made it burn? I dunno, let’s try again.”

If you’re going to go to the trouble of recreating an old deadly virus, I would think you’d have something in mind to try and cure it, especially since they seem to think the clock is ticking down on our next pandemic. Even if the cure doesn’t work, at least you can say they tried, and they can learn something from it. What have they learned from this? The way it was described, exactly nothing.

Maybe I’m misinterpreting a potential misinterpretation of research. I guess the only real way to know is to read the actual study. But that’s what I got out of it, correct me if I’m wrong. I really really really really hope I am.

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