Friday, December 29, 2006

Raising the Dead

Mad Scientist Syndrome. You know its symptoms: a seemingly respectable but overly-ambitious scientist goes “renegade” with a genius but ill-considered experiment, stirring up some unholy broth or lightning-generating device, then experimenting on himself or an unwitting victim to create a nightmarish scenario. In the process, his eyes grow wild, he has an uncontrolled urge to utter “Mwa ha ha ha ha”, and he can’t seem to control his hair no matter how much hair spray he puts on. 50’s sci-fi movies were full of them and their beastly creations, trouncing hapless eastern-block villages or slaughtering innocent teenagers parked at Make-Out Point.

The truth is that most of us scientists are more like your local librarian than Dr. Frankenstein (although I can name a lab rat or two who resemble Dr. Frank-N-Furter). There have been a few real-life mavericks out there who fit the bill, though, like Nikola Tesla, John C. Lilly, and Edward Teller.

Well now we have a real-life Dr. Frankenstein, of sorts. Imagine, if you will, how you would react if someone brought a person back from being very, very dead. It would be weird and wrong, unethical, but probably not nightmarish since it’s easy enough to avoid, kill, or in some other way control your average zombie. Now imagine how you would react if someone brought back a horrible and naturally extinct virus like smallpox. Okay, that’s nightmarish! By the time the last victim died in 1978 and the disease was eradicated in nature, up to 500 million people had died worldwide in just the 20th century alone.

Finally, imagine that you had the ability to bring back an infective virus from millions of years ago with an unknown pathogenic effect and known human infectivity. What would you do? A French (mad) scientist by the name of Thierry Heidmann recently faced this question:

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa003&articleID=AAE5AA31-E7F2-99DF-3D8667A185A61229&ref=rss

Heidmann took sequences of a retrovirus found degraded in human DNA, which infected human ancestors five-million years ago and resequenced it (basically bringing it back to life). This resequenced retrovirus, which he named “Phoenix”, was put into human and mammalian cells and found to be “mildly infective.” They used only biosafety level 3 (comparable to studies of 1918 flu pandemic, compared to smallpox which rates a 4) and apparently did not have national or international oversight. They do not yet know what, if any, clinical effect if would have on an organism.

Eek! So let me see if I have this right: Heidmann brought back to life a very ancient but extinct virus which was known to have infected human ancestors, without knowing how infective it was, what clinical effects it might have, and without the highest level of safety or oversight?

Do I hear a “Mwa ha ha ha ha”?

4 comments:

Maggie said...

Please tell me that even without the highest level safety it still would remain contained in labs right? Scary stuff.

Angry Lab Rat said...

Biosafety Level-3 (BSL-3) (like this instance) do involve working in special contained cabinets, limited entry, and sterilization techniques and disposal. However, BSL-4 (the highest) would also include special decon showers and washes, wearing of disposable clothing, specially-filtered ventilation, special room-sealing against entry of insects (which could act as vectors), and special sterilization techniques. I've personally only worked with materials up to BSL-2 and no higher. I guess that only warrents a "Mwa ha" instead of a "Mwa ha ha ha"!

For the nitty-gritty details, here's a site:
http://ehs.unc.edu/manuals/bsm/bsm4.pdf

Maggie said...

Thanks ALR - good info to know. Im breathing a little easier. Yeah you need to amp up your Mwa ha ha levels - if you're going to ever reach that mad scientist status!

phil said...

necromancy isn't unethical as long as it's between two consenting adults.