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Autism Coach

A World Without Vaccines - Genetically Engineering Disease Resistance

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Dr. Michael Farzan

Like any technology, genetic engineering can be used for good or evil.  This particular application discussed in this article may be eventually be used for the good of the autism community.  Genetically modifying the immune system may prove of benefit in re-establishing a healthy immune system that fights off disease but does not attack healthy tissues.

Last month a team of scientists announced what could prove to be an enormous step forward in fighting HIV.  Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute said they developed an artificial antibody that once in the blood, grabbed hold of the HIV virus and inactivated it.  The molecule eliminated HIV from infected monkeys and protected them from future infections.  

IGT (Immmunoprophlaxys by Gene Transfer) is NOT a vaccine.  Vaccines introduce pathogens into the blood stream to induce the immune system to produce antibodies.   IGT delivers synthetic genes via a virus that infects cells with the new gene which then replicates, conferring resistance to infectious agents.   Researchers testing this approach not only against HIV but also malaria, influenza, and hepatitis.  

In IGT, a form a gene therapy, scientists isolate the genes that produce powerful antibodies against certain diseases and synthesize artificial versions. The genes are placed in viruses and injected into human tissue, usually muscle. The viruses infect human cells with their DNA payloads and synthetic gene is incorporated into the recipients own DNA. If all goes well, the new genes instruct the cells to begin manufacturing powerful antibodies. The antibodies would, in effect, vaccinate people against the disease.

"The sky's the limit," said Michael Farzon, an immunologist at Scripps and lead author of the new study.  The first human trial for this approach, called immmunoprophlaxys by gene transfer, or IGT, underway and several new ones are planned.  

"It could revolutionize the way we immunize against public health threates in the future," said Dr. Gary J. Nabel, the chief scientific officer of Sanofi, a pharmaceutical that produces vaccines.  Researchers still need to assess effectiveness and safety.  The prospects of genetically engineering people to resist infectious diseases.

"The reality is we are touching third rails and so it's going to take some explanation," said Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize recipient and virologist at Caltech who is testing IGT against a number of diseases.

Conventional vaccines stimulate the immune system to create antibodies to a weakened, killed, or chopped up portions of a pathogen such as a virus.  Then our immune cells produce antibodies to the introduced pathogen.  This does not work against pathogens that mutate, such as HIV.  This approach needs to be further tested for effectiveness and safety.

The idea for IGT emerged during the fight against HIV. Some people, it turned out, had powerful antibodies to HIV and were much less likely to get it.  Scientists found that these broadly neutralizing antibodies could latch onto many different strains of the virus and keep them from infecting new cells.  

In 2009, Dr. Phillip Johnson, a virologist at the University of Pennyslvania, began using this approach to protect monkeys from Simian Immunoficienty Virus, the monkey equivalent of HIV.  Using this IGT approach, they were able to prevent monkeys being exposed to SIV from developing it.  This approach was also tested successfully with mice.

In IGT, a form a gene therapy, scientists isolate the genes that produce powerful antibodies against certain diseases and synthesize artificial versions.  The genes are placed in viruses and injected into human tissue, usually muscle.  The viruses invade human cells with their DNA payloads and synthetic gene is incorporated into the recipients own DNA.  If all goes well, the new genes instruct the cells to begin manufacturing powerful antibodies.  The antibodies would, in effect, vaccinate people against the disease.  

Human trials began last February when Dr. Johnson began placing HIV antibody genes into the muscles of volunteers to see if the treatment is safe. 

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