Viruses That Make Zombies and Vaccines
January 19, 2013 1:46 AM   Subscribe

This week the FDA announced that they were approving a new kind of flu vaccine. Nestled in the articles was an odd fact: unlike traditional flu vaccines, the new kind, called Flublok, is produced by the cells of insects. This is the kind of detail that you might skim over without giving it a thought. If you did pause to ponder, you might be puzzled: how could insects possibly make a vaccine against viruses that infect humans? The answer may surprise you. To make vaccines, scientists are tapping into a battle between viruses and insects that’s raging in forests and fields and backyards all around us. It’s an important lesson in how to find new ideas in biotechnology: first, leave biologists free to explore the weirdest corners of nature they can find.

How a zombie virus became a big biotech business Also by Zimmer

Liquefying virus uses one gene to make caterpillars climb By Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science
Toward system-level understanding of baculovirus–host cell interactions: from molecular fundamental studies to large-scale proteomics approaches
Baculoviruses are insect viruses extensively exploited as eukaryotic protein expression vectors. Molecular biology studies have provided exciting discoveries on virus–host interactions, but the application of omic high-throughput techniques on the baculovirus–insect cell system has been hampered by the lack of host genome sequencing. While a broader, systems-level analysis of biological responses to infection is urgently needed, recent advances on proteomic studies have yielded new insights on the impact of infection on the host cell. These works are reviewed and critically assessed in the light of current biological knowledge of the molecular biology of baculoviruses and insect cells.
posted by Blasdelb (7 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
a fungus that sends its ant hosts to the undersides of leaves, whereupon the fungus sprouts branches out of the ant’s head and showers spores down on new victims. Lancet flukes send their hosts up to the tips of grass blades so that they can be eaten by grazing cows and sheep. It’s fascinating that even a virus–with just a few genes–can trigger this behavior as well.

Now this is "life-hacking"!
posted by anonymisc at 1:54 AM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Viruses and insects are two of the most populous species on Earth, so by any reasonable standard, we are the weird corner of nature, one highly dominant mammal with a disproportionate impact on the world, but still a weird corner.

It's really interesting to think that we eat so very many of those baculoviruses, but they're just a tiny bit of food as far as we're concerned, where they're pretty much a death sentence for a caterpillar of the correct species that ingests one.

This, by the way, is why species extinction is such a big deal, and why general, basic scientific research is so important. Applied science gives you toys to buy, but basic research changes your life.
posted by Malor at 2:18 AM on January 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

"Recently, Dr. Wilson and his colleagues discovered a new antibody with a slender tendril. It can snake into a groove in the hemagglutinin tip.

Dr. Wilson and his colleagues found that this tendriled antibody can attach to a wide range of flu viruses. The results hint that the groove — which flu viruses use to attach to host cells — cannot work if its shape changes much.

The antibody is also impressively powerful, the scientists found. They infected mice with a lethal dose of the flu and then, after three days, injected the new antibody into them. The antibody stopped the virus so effectively that the mice recovered.

Wow, totally fucking awesome. Science rocks. Thanks for this, Blasdelb.
posted by marienbad at 4:13 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

It’s an important lesson in how to find new ideas in biotechnology: first, leave biologists free to explore the weirdest corners of nature they can find.

North American society needs to realize that job training and learning are two entirely different things. There's huge value to trades school, but some of our most clever ideas came from letting people learn in an somewhat more unfocused way. We need to stop attacking academic programs that don't apply to a single field. Arts, much of the sciences, etc. Training people for specific jobs serves specific employers, but it doesn't serve society at all.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:29 AM on January 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

It’s an important lesson in how to find new ideas in biotechnology: first, leave biologists free to explore the weirdest corners of nature they can find.

...And one funding agencies and research institutes seem to be ignoring with their renewed focus on "translational research" (sometimes in the form of private/public collaborations with pharma companies). The director of the institute where I work just wrote an article about this shift in direction (no paywall), which he likens to eating our own seed corn.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:59 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is amazing. My mother and I cannot get normal flu shots because we both have an allergy to chicken eggs. My moms is quite severe, and she even had to get a special waiver for not getting one when she worked at a hospital in their administrative offices for a while. My own reaction to eggs is very mild, so much so I initially didn't think a flu shot would be a problem. Oh man was I wrong.

I'd always gotten quite sick after getting a flu shot, but chalked that up to my crummy immune system. Until one year I happened to get one, and had an appointment with my rheumatologist two days later. She asked me what happened to cause the huge raised knot and bruise I had, and I mentioned I'd had a flu shot. She looked hugely alarmed when she put that together with the 101F fever and ice cold hands I had, and asked if I was allergic to eggs. She said I should avoid getting them in the future at all costs.

So yeah. I'm hugely thrilled about this. My mom is into her late 60s now, and I worry about her not being able to get a flu shot. And I get nervous every flu season because I'm so reliant on herd immunity, but in the middle of a major university and ride public transit. Thank you, FDA and Science!
posted by strixus at 11:54 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

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