Synthetic biology is being
used in the hunt for a vaccine for H7N9, the new strain of bird flu emerging in
China, with hopes it could shave a vital two weeks off the vaccine's development process.
genetic sequence information posted on the website of the
Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), Synthetic Genomics and Novartis have been working on the development of a synthetic vaccine to
protect against H7N9.
scientists are attempting to create a vaccine that mimics the real virus, but
importantly removing the pathogenic parts, allowing the body to develop
specific immunity without contracting the flu. This method will take two weeks
off the development process - critical when dealing with the rapid spread of an influenza pandemic.
manufacturers normally rely on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to identify
and distribute live viruses to create vaccines, while synthetic biology only requires the genetic sequence of
from mistakes made during the SARS outbreak, scientists
speedily identified that the zoonotic virus originated
from a poultry market, sequenced its DNA and published the results online within
From the genome
sequence, many gene variants were identified, giving clues to the kind of
threat the disease may pose. The mutation R292K, which causes a high-level
resistance to the influenza drug Tamiflu and reduced sensitivity to Relenza,
was shown to be present in a sample obtained from one patient in Shanghai.
also showed the presence of the gene mutation Q226L, which indicates the
ability to infect mammals. Q226L could
enhance the ability of the virus to bind to receptors in the human upper air
tract and was associated with the transmission of the H5N1 virus in 2009.
To date, 60
people have been infected and 13 killed by H7N9 since the new form of the virus
was confirmed on 31 March 2013. There is still no evidence to suggest that it
can spread from human to human, and experts believe that direct contact with diseased
poultry accounts for the human cases. This has resulted in the slaughter of 20,000
birds in Shanghai and the closure of live chicken markets in both Shanghai and
Beijing as the capital confirms its first case.
the WHO's representative in China, said: 'There's no way to predict how it will
spread but it's not surprising if we have new cases in different places like we
do in Beijing'.