Sounds like a grade B 40’s movie doesn’t it? But it’s (almost) true. Read Science Magazine for March 11 2011 if you dare (pages 1253 – 1254). I figured I’d get into the same spirit as the New York Times’ coverage of the nuclear problems in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. The New Yorker isn’t much better having enlisted an English major and a novelist to cover things. But the reality behind the evil scientists is even more interesting than the hype (as usual).
I assume you’ve heard of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). As a neurologist, particularly one running a muscular dystrophy clinic, I’d occasionally be called in to see some patients with CFS One of the diseases we covered was myasthenia gravis which has both weakness and fatigue. The patients were miserable and almost invariably depressed (as are most people with a chronic illness, partiularly one which is unexplained). Anyone who’s every had mono knows how long lasting the fatigue that follows can be. Mononucleosis is caused by a known virus (the Epstein Barr virus), so why not chronic fatigue syndrome? Reasonable enough, and people have been diligently looking for a causative virus for decades. Numerous culprits were found (Epstein Barr virus, Borna disease virus, human herpes virus 6, HTLV2), say by group #1, only not to be found by groups 2, 3, 4, …..
The latest is something called XMRV –which stands for Xenotropic Murine RetroVirus, first published in Science in October 2009 (vol. 326 pp. 585 – 589). It was found in 2/3 of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and 4% of normals. Subsequently there has been a huge amount of back and forth between people able to find it (the minority) and those not able. Also when someone is able to find the virus it appears slightly different than the original. A big study is underway with the same blood samples sent to various labs for them to use the assay of their choice to see if any sort of consistency can be obtained.
Now it’s going to get a bit technical. The following old post might help some — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/molecular-biology-survival-guide-for-chemists-i-dna-and-protein-coding-gene-structure/, but it doesn’t have much about viruses in it.
Everyone’s heard of AIDS and the virus which causes it (HIV1 aka Human Immunodeficiency Virus 1). HIV1 is a retrovirus, which means it can actually implant itself in our DNA (the genome). It can just sit there not causing trouble, or come out and slowly wreck the immune system. This is why we’ve found some decent treatments, but no cures — the virus is deep inside our DNA. Now sit down, some 10% of our genome is made of retrovirus which has invaded us or a past ancestor. Most are inactive — so many mutations in them have taken place that they can’t code for a living virus (whatever the term living means to a virus).
Mice have endogenous retroviruses as well. one of which is XMRV. Someone studying prostate cancers had found DNA sequences resembling mouse retroviruses in them. Actually what was being studied were cell lines from prostate cancer (which are hard to make). Mikovits (the author of the 10/09 Science paper) was intrigued when she heard it in 10/07 because the prostate cancer cell lines showed a defect in immunity to viruses, similar to what had been found in some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. It took two years of hard work before the Science paper came out.
Then the fun began. The results have ominous implications for anyone needing a transfusion. Xenotropic means that the virus doesn’t infect the species of origin (it’s already there), but can infect others (in this case us). Think of the disaster HIV1 was for the population of hemophiliacs who died of AIDS, receiving the HIV1 virus unsuspectingly in the multiple transfusions they required. Could our blood supply already be contaminated with XMRV?
Spectacular results demand spectacular confirmation and results have been all over the map. The dust appears to be settling, and here’s what probably happened. Prostate cancer tumors are difficult to grow in lab experiments, but in ’93 a prostate cancer cell line was obtained by injecting human prostate cancer tissue into a special kind of mouse (which had essentially no immune system to fight it off). Then the grafted tumor was removed and injected into another hapless mouse etc. etc. In ’99 a permanent cell line of prostate cancer (22Rv1) had been developed this way.
22Rv1 contains XMRV. The original tissue and cell lines from it dating back to ’93 were available. Before ’96 no cell line contained XMRV DNA. Around ’96 some XRMV sequences, but containing only half of the viral DNA appeared in the cell lines. Other samples at about this time contained the other half of the XMRV genome. Now chronic fatigue syndrome didn’t suddenly appear in ’99, and even if XMRV can cause it now, if these results are true, it couldn’t possibly have been causing the cases I saw.
When the two sequences were compared, it was found that they overlapped perfectly to form the XMRV genome. What happened? As mentioned, the X in XMRV stands for Xenotropic, meaning that the virus cannot infect mouse cells. But when both of them are sloshing around in a mouse in which a human prostate tumor had been injected, they can get together forming the virus. XRMV hasn’t been found in dozens of inbred and wild mice (despite intensive search).
So, in trying to form a prostate cancer cell line that they could study, the evil scientists essentially created a new organism. Shades of Frankenstein and Dr. Faustus.
What is truly scary is contemplating what other viruses might be brewing in experiments like these. Attempts to form cancer cell lines so we can find better ways to fight it, seems pretty innocuous. But it may not be.
If you’d like to see an excellent and logical dissection of the way the Times is reporting on nuclear events in Japan have a look at this. http://wavefunction.fieldofscience.com/2011/03/long-grave-dug.html