Synthetic flu virus opens door to safer vaccines

A group of molecular biologists and computer scientists at Stony Brook University have created a synthetic flu virus that can be used to develop a safer type of vaccine.

The virus--A/PR/8/34--contains a scrambled genetic code generated by computer algorithms. The resulting mutations--what they describe as death by a thousand cuts--are arranged so the resulting viral genome will produce fewer proteins, which weakens it. And the researchers say that the flu vaccine they created worked in mice.

"Essentially, we have rewritten the virus' genetic instructions manual in a strange dialect of genetic code that is difficult for the host cell machinery to understand," says Steffen Mueller, Ph.D., the senior author and assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology. "This poor line of communication leads to inefficient translation of viral protein and, ultimately, to a very weak virus that proves to be ideal for immunization."

"We used our 'death by a thousand cuts' method to create the mutated synthetic virus," he adds. "Because the synthetic sequence contains hundreds of changes, the synthetic virus has essentially no possibility of regaining virulence."

Their work is a direct outgrowth of the research undertaken by Stony Brook's Eckard Wimmer, Ph.D. In 2002, Dr. Wimmer and colleagues synthesized poiovirus, the first artificial synthesis of any virus. Two years ago, they designed and synthesized a new class of attenuated polio viruses.

- here's the report on their project