Tuesday, March 14, 2006

COLONIZATION BY VIRUS: a science assignment

What do the common cold, Lassa fever, Bird Flu and HIV have in common?


Amid conspiracy theories of biological warfare and mysterious terms like the ‘antigenic shift’, Dr. Sharath Rai, Principal scientist in his discovery group at the global research-based pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, is in hot pursuit of vaccines for various viral & bacterial diseases.

He has been working as a senior staff scientist in this US-based company for the past five years. Although his current work is shrouded in secrecy, Rai chatted via the internet with eight Science elective students from the Asian College of Journalism from 8.30 to 9.45 am on Fri 4, 2006.

He explained that Virology captured his interest because it is an area in its ‘infancy’ and thus is one of the ‘cutting edge research areas’. He added later, “May be I had some coveted aspects of research when I was in academia. But once you end up in the pharmaceutical industry, much of your research is driven by business, and you constantly keep changing your areas of research based on the business requirements.”

In response to claims that some pharmaceutical companies hype symptoms (especially psychiatric disorders like depression) because they have developed medicines to cure them, he said, “I do not believe that statement is true. However, that is a hypothetical question and the opinions can vary based on which angles you are looking from itself.”

He then answered a ‘host’ of questions pertaining to the devious nature of our body’s nemesis - the virus. Let’s imagine that the virus is a colonizer seeking to capture a country – the human body.

The virus does so by first conquering individual households – host cells. Thus the entire body plays the unwitting ‘host’ to this greedy guest. He even uses the body’s resources (host cell’s machinery) to clone an army for himself.

As a result, Rai explained how hard it is to give him the boot. “If you target the virus then there is a good chance you will target the host cell as well… Also, viruses constantly evolve to avoid host immune system (best examples are the HIV and the influenza virus). Thus it will be an ongoing fight between research and virus evolution.”

On the virus’ list of crimes, identity theft proves the most troublesome. One must be able to tell enemy clones from native soldiers. So, when screening for chemical compounds virologists have to isolate a particular stage in a virus’ life cycle when it will not harm the host cell.

This is why vaccines - a weakened form of the virus itself, are the most successful battle strategy. It’s like using the weakest clone of the virus to learn the virus’ war strategy. The body uses this to equip herself with the skills needed to kick her uninvited guest out, without harming herself too much.

This is how we managed to protect the human race from colonization by virus. But the fiend doesn’t give up that easy. He then learns to get around the body’s defenses. He launches his most confounding attack. Mutation. If we knew how he would mutate, maybe we could strategize accordingly. But as the good doctor says…

“There are several factors that can impact the viral mutation patterns, and it is different for each virus. Although with the advance of algorithms/mathematics, it is still a very random process. …these tools may help you predict to some extent in the controlled lab environment, but in the real world I would say it is still as unpredictable as ever.


OH OH!!!
i think we be in trouble yeah???