Scientists Aim to Develop Virus-Proof Human Cells

A scientific group has announced ambitious plans to develop "ultra safe cells". The development of these cells could have a major impact on the future of human health. 

The scientific group Genome Project-write (GP-write) say they plan to develop cells that are resistant to viruses. The “grand-scale community-wide project” will develop cells that are also potentially resistant to radiation, freezing, aging and cancer. 

“There is very strong reason to believe that we can produce cells that would be completely resistant to all known viruses.”

The group believes it is the first step towards producing “ultra-safe cells” at will. George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and one of four members of the GP-write Leadership Group say that the development of these so called ultra-safe cells could have a major impact on the future of human health. 

“There is very strong reason to believe that we can produce cells that would be completely resistant to all known viruses,” Jef Boeke, director of the Institute for Systems Genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center and one of the GP-write leaders, told news media. 

“It should also be possible to engineer other traits, including resistance to prions and cancer.” While recording the human genome to be virus-resistant seems ambitious enough, it is actually just the first step in the true vision of the project which is to make any genome, including the human genome, in a lab. 

Project only possible with broad collaboration

The efforts of the project are helped along by their collaboration with biopharmaceutical company Cellectis. Cellectis will provide Churches lab at Harvard with virus-targeting technology that relies on the genome editing tool TALEN that will allow scientist to make highly precise changes to DNA. 

The researchers will create the virus-resistant genes through DNA recoding. This recording confuses viruses so they can no longer recognize the human genome and therefore cannot exploit the human genes to reproduce itself. 

"The overall GP-write project is focused on writing, editing and building large genomes. We will generate a wealth of information connecting the sequence of nucleotide bases in DNA with their physiological properties and functional behaviors, enabling the development of safer, less costly and more effective therapeutics and a broad range of applications in other areas such as energy, agriculture, healthcare, chemicals and bioremediation,” says Boeke.

Harvard lab has done the groundwork

While the project is overwhelmingly challenging, Church says his lab has already tested some the science that will allow them to achieve their goal. Church has done research into genetic changes on the bacteria E. coli. Scientists in his lab made 321 changes to the bacteria’s genome, which resulted in the microbes being resistant to certain viruses. 

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Doing this same process with human cells is much more complex. “Recoding every protein in the human genome…would require 400,000 changes,” Church said in the statement.

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Many institutional partners are expected to come aboard the project as it develops. The research will have major application for global health. In a statement from the group, they explain how medicines are manufactured in specialized cellular factories. But viruses can contaminate these cells and in some instances cause massive losses and result in patients being cut off from their necessary pharmaceutical supply. "Ultra-safe cells could thus make pharmaceuticals safer, cheaper and more reliable," says Church.

The GP-write leaders say they hope to complete their project within 10 years.

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