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Bringing Viruses Back to Life

Bringing Viruses Back to LifeTufts School of Medicine Professor John Coffin, an internationally renowned molecular biologist, explains how a recent breakthrough in retrovirus research may lead to more effective treatments for HIV.

Boston [12.13.07] It's a prospect that may unnerve some-scientists bringing extinct viruses back to life to learn more about how they evolved along with humans. But when it comes to retroviruses like HIV, which take up permanent residence in our DNA, the past can provide important clues about how to treat them.

"There has been this remarkable evolutionary arms race between viruses and us and our ancestors," John Coffin, the American Cancer Society Research Professor at Tufts School of Medicine, told On Point, a program on Boston's NPR affiliate WBUR.

Coffin, a leader in retrovirus research, was one of the first molecular biologists to study the impact of that struggle. He explained that while humans have succeeded in driving some retroviruses into extinction, the effects, in some cases, have been adverse.

He told On Point about the recent discovery of a gene in primates and other monkeys that blocks HIV infection. In humans, that same gene is less successful because it has undergone a small evolutionary change.

"That change was apparently... to create resistance to a different retrovirus," he told On Point. "By becoming resistant to that retrovirus, it actually made our ancestors more susceptible to HIV."

A research team in Washington was able to make that determination about the gene because fragments of these extinct retroviruses remain in our DNA today, providing what the Coffin called "a fossil record" of how viruses and humans have evolved together.

"It's only recently that we have come to have a full appreciation of the very large number of these things," Coffin told On Point.

Even more recently, scientists have discovered that these fragments, which Coffin said are all "damaged a little bit, but... in different ways," can be pieced together to resurrect extinct retroviruses.

"It's like taking two damaged cars, one with a bad engine and one with bad brakes, and taking the pieces out of one and putting it into the other and making a good car again," he explained to On Point.

Coffin told The New Yorker that the ability to inject retroviruses into human cells and watch them thrive is "wild stuff."

"I understand that the idea of bringing something dead back to life is fundamentally frightening," he told the magazine. "It's a power that science has come to possess and it makes us queasy and it should."

But these revived retroviruses pose minimal risk to the population at large, even in light of bio-terrorism, according to Coffin.

"At the moment there's no reason to believe that any of these are sufficiently infectious to be very high on any potential terrorist's ‘to-do' list," he told On Point. "I'm not sure any scientist knows how to make a virus that is capable of both causing disease and spreading to a greater extent than it was able to do so before you started."

This area of research offers more cause for hope than it does for concern.

"Having these viruses and being able to study them will shed more light on exactly... how we've naturally been able... to shake off virus infections in the past," he told On Point. "[They] may well provide us with very important clues as to how we can do that deliberately in the future to treat particularly HIV and other retrovirus infections."

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