An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon
A VIRUS that kills every one of its victims, by wiping out part of their immune system, has been accidentally created by an Australian research team. The virus, a modified mousepox, does not affect humans, but it is closely related to smallpox, raising fears that the technology could be used in biowarfare.
The discovery highlights a growing problem. How do you stop terrorists taking legitimate research and adapting it for their own nefarious purposes?
The Australian researchers had no intention of producing a killer virus. They were merely trying to make a mouse contraceptive vaccine for pest control. "But it's a good way to show how to alter smallpox to make it more virulent," says Ken Alibek, former second-in-command of the civilian branch of the Soviet germ-warfare programme.
Ron Jackson of CSIRO's wildlife division and Ian Ramshaw at the Australian National University, both in Canberra, inserted into a mousepox virus a gene that creates large amounts of interleukin 4. IL-4 is a molecule that occurs naturally in the body. As part of a study aimed at creating a contraceptive vaccine, they were trying to stimulate antibodies against mouse eggs, which would make the animals infertile. The mousepox virus was merely a vehicle for transporting the egg proteins into mice to trigger an antibody response. The researchers added the gene for IL-4 to boost antibody production. The surprise was that it totally suppressed the "cell-mediated response"-the arm of the immune system that combats viral infection.
Mousepox normally causes only mild symptoms in the type of mice used in the study, but with the IL-4 gene added it wiped out all the animals in nine days. "It would be safe to assume that if some idiot did put human IL-4 into human smallpox they'd increase the lethality quite dramatically," says Jackson. "Seeing the consequences of what happened i
Contact: Claire Bowles