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Scientists may recreate killer
BY NIGEL HAWKES, SCIENCE EDITOR
AN OXFORD team is considering the
possibility of reconstructing the 1918 influenza
virus which killed 20 million people around the
The experiment would have to be done in the
strictest possible containment, Professor
George Brownlee of the Sir William Dunn
School of Pathology in Oxford, said.
Its aim would be to try to discover just what
made the 1918 "Spanish flu" so deadly, and to
devise better protection against future flu
The virus could be rebuilt, at least in part,
because research by scientists at the US
Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in
Washington has worked out the sequence of
two of the most important genes in the 1918
flu virus, using post-mortem material from the
institute's archives and from a woman who
died of the flu and was buried in the Alaskan
A scientist in Professor Brownlee's team, Dr
Ervin Fodor, has developed a method for
recreating old viruses from DNA molecules.
The method is to be shown at this week's New
Frontiers in Science Exhibition at the Royal
Society in London.
"The technique is very simple," Professor
Brownlee said. "It involves adding 12 plasmids
- rings - of DNA to a cell in tissue culture, and
out pops a virus."
The recipe for the plasmids would be based
on what the American scientists, Jeffry
Taubenberger and Ann Reid, have discovered
about the 1918 virus. They have the sequence
of two of the most important genes, those for
the protein haemoglutinin and the enzyme
neuraminidase, both found on the surface of
These have cast no obviouslight on why the
virus was so lethal and Dr Reid believes that its
secret may not lie in a single gene, but in how
well all the viral genes work together.
New Frontiers in Science is open daily,
10.30am to 4.30pm, at the Royal Society, 6
Carlton House Terrace.
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