A new strategy that dismantles a viral genome in human lung cells will ensure safe research on deadly strains of influenza, say researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Details of their "molecular biocontainment" approach, designed to prevent effective transmission of these viruses to humans, are published in Nature Biotechnology.
The strategy they developed and tested will enable healthy molecules in human lung cells to latch on to these viruses and cut the bugs up before they have a chance to infect the human host.
Findings from the study, led by Benjamin tenOever and Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, both Fishberg Professors in the Department of Medicine and Department of Microbiology at Mount Sinai, should resolve concerns that led in 2012 to a worldwide, yearlong voluntary moratorium on research into the deadly H5N1 bird flu.
The ban came after several scientific teams successfully altered the H5N1 viral genome to enable airborne transmission of the bird flu between ferrets mammals considered a good research model for humans. The public health concern was that altered H5N1 could escape the lab, infect and spread among humans, producing a global pandemic.
"The question last year was whether the risk of altered bird flu escaping laboratories justified the science aimed at understanding the transmission of these viruses. With our method, the possibility of human transmission is no longer a concern," says Dr. tenOever.
H5N1 normally spreads between poultry and wild birds. It can be transmitted from birds to humans, with difficulty, and has only rarely been passed between people. It is lethal to humans. Since 2003, it has killed 360 people out of 610 people infected.
The researchers say the approach they developed works for all influenza A viruses, which includes H5N1, and potentially with other highly pathogenic RNA viruses, including Ebola and SARS.
Dr. tenOever is k
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