Researchers have been creating one deadly virus after another in the laboratory, and the latest is 'SHIV', a hybrid between the human and monkey AIDS virus containing human interleukin genes that suppress immune response against viruses. At the same time, GM crops engineered with interleukin genes are being grown in open field trials. Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho ask whether the relevant biosafety Committees have taking these dangerous scenarios on board when they separately approve the laboratory experiments and the field trials.
In January this year, researchers in Canberra Australia created a GM mouse-pox virus that killed all its victims simply by inserting into it a gene coding for interleukin 4, a protein belonging to the cytokine family that regulates thymus (T ) helper-cells in the immune response. This deadly virus also killed half of the mice that have been immunized against the mouse-pox virus  (See "Genetic engineering superviruses" I-SIS News 9/10, July 2001).
Unbeknownst to most of the world, researchers in Kyoto University, Japan, have created far worse. In order to investigate the role of cytokines in the progression of AIDS disease, they made 'SHIV' - a chimeric virus containing several genes from the human virus, HIV, in a basic frame of the monkey virus, SIV - which is capable of infecting both human and monkey cells. Into this SHIV, they insert various human cytokine genes in order to investigate how the virus replicate in cell cultures and in experimental macaque monkeys infected with the GM virus.
In the first experiment reported last year , the human gene for interleukin 6, IL-6, was inserted into a SHIV with a deletion in one of the genes from the HIV sequence in the chimeric virus. The deletion slowed the replication of the SHIV, but does not abolish it. IL-6 is known to be elevated in AIDS disease and to contribute to immunological abnormalities in HIV-infected patients. The resultant GM virus successfully replicated in a human thymus cell line as well as in monkey and human peripheral blood mononuclear cells, with high levels of expression of IL-6. Surprisingly, the inserted gene was stable for at least four passages in the human thymus cell line, and it was suggested that the IL-6 gene in the GM virus might make the virus grow faster.
In a second report just published , the researchers inserted the human gene for interleukin 5, IL-5, into two SHIVs with deletions in different HIV genes. Again, the GM virus replicated stably in human thymus-derived cell lines as well as monkey peripheral blood mononuclear cells, with very high expression of IL-5, especially in one of the GM viruses.
The researchers stated, "The replication of both SHIVs having IL-5 appeared to be faster than that of the parental viruses without the IL-5 gene. These results show that co-expression of IL-5 stimulates SHIV replication in vitro. Thus, it is expected that expression of IL-5 will also have an effect on viral replication and pathogenicity in vivo." (p.1051, italics ours)
By the admission of the researchers themselves, chimeric viruses such as the SHIV constructions with interleukins are potentially threatening to both humans and primates. Unintended release of these viruses through infection of human beings or escape of experimental monkeys injected with the virus should be matters of grave concern. These GM viruses can readily recombine with all kinds of viruses to give them at least one gene - the interleukin gene - that would make them more virulent.
Do the risks of producing SHIV chimeras with interleukins outweigh the potential benefits that may result from learning about the role of interleukin in facilitating virus multiplication? We do not think so. Such laboratory experiments should never have been approved on grounds of both safety and animal welfare.
In a parallel development, interleukins are being produced in GM crop plants. Field trials of a crop engineered with an interleukin gene had been carried out in the county where one of us reside. The approval has been given without considering the risks associated with pollution of surface and ground water by the protein following plant-wounding or breakage of rootlets. Birds and mammals readily consume sucking insects feeding on the test crop. Interleukin genes may spread by pollen to crop plants and weeds consumed by human beings, livestock as well as wild mammals. The interleukins consumed may lead to suppression of immune response and immune memory, thereby promoting the spread of viral diseases.
In addition, all kinds of viruses may pick up the interleukin gene from the GM crops, to become more lethal than nature's worst.
As field trials and production sites for GM crops producing pharmaceuticals are not made public, the first recognition of their presence near a community may be devastating viral diseases spreading through human, domestic and wild animal populations.
Article first published 19/07/01
Key words: Superviruses, HIV, SIV, interleukin, GM crops
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