The versatile virus and the world’s most expensive therapy

Biotech – The Cutting Edge
The versatile virus and the world’s most expensive therapy

Viruses are self-engineered to be resilient and versatile, surviving in the harshest of conditions. This week we discuss how viruses have evolved mechanisms to control the mind, survive 48,500 years in permafrost and hijacked gene-editing tools from bacteria. The title for the most expensive therapy has also changed hands again: that’s twice in just 2 months.

Mind control Toxoplasma gondii, sometimes known as the ‘mind control’ parasite has been shown to make wolves more likely to become a pack leader. Infection with the parasite results in cysts in the brain which increase levels of dopamine and testosterone. This subsequently results in more bold, risk taking behaviour, which promotes the parasites’ life cycle. Whilst studies in rats seem to take away fear of predators and thus increases the risk of said rat being eaten by a cat (perpetuating infection in cats), in wolves, this risk-taking behaviour means wolves leave the pack at a younger age and seek out new territories (alpha wolf traits) spreading infections far and wide..

Zombie in the permafrost – adding to our belated Halloween theme, after roughly 48,500 years trapped in Siberia’s permafrost, scientists have – according to the Times – ‘revived’ a pandovirus (by showing it is capable of infecting cells in the laboratory). These pandoviruses only target single-cell organisms, posing no threat to humans (but highlight the potential worries of dramatic global warming releasing long-forgotten pathogens from thawing permafrost). We just about resisted the urge to post a comment about viruses not really being alive (hence our furrowed brow at ‘revive’) but note that ‘obligate intracellular parasite discovered in old ice’ doesn’t quite have the same snappy, clickbait appeal.

Next generation CRISPR? CRISPR, is a gene editing tool which is commonly found in 40% of bacteria and 85% of archaea. These microbes use CRISPR as a defence; slicing and dicing an invading virus’ genome in a bid to prevent viral infection. Many will have come across CRISPR in another setting though, as scientists use this capability in cell and gene therapy. However, researchers have now found that we aren't the only ones to use CRISPR systems for our own means. It seems that 0.4% of bacteriophage genomes have also picked up CRISPR blueprints. It would seem these bacteriophages use CRISPR to confer an advantage – removing its competitors DNA before it has chance to ‘infect’ the bacteria. In delving into these ‘new’ CRIPSR enzymes, scientists found that many are actually more efficient than our current CRISPR gene editing tools.

Most expensive treatment in the world – If you thought the cost of living crisis was bad, I suggest you look away now…the haemophilia B cell & gene therapy ‘Hemgenix’ from uniQure/CSL Behring has just been priced at $3.5m per dose. CSL notes that haemophilia B can cost healthcare systems more than $20m over a patient’s life time with Hemgenix potentially being used as a one off dose.

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