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Nature’s best bully: the virus

April 2, 2012

To see how far can they push the human body seems to be the abiding behavior pattern for all viruses. The human organism responds, often throws off the attack and ‘immunizes’ itself against that particular virus. In some critical instances the bully not only wins but wages a life and death battle with the human body. HIV is the perfect example. The real viral threat to our health is potential of viruses (bacteria) to mutate and survive. There appears to be an aggressive native intelligence at work here. The very simplicity of the structure of the virus makes it attack differently and survive stubbornly. Even when antivirals work it is like setting up a line of defense and keeping it armed forever. You let your guard down and you are under attack again. And should the virus mutate in the meantime the effective antiviral becomes useless. Viruses vary in small but dangerous ways. Take flu for instance. So many strains and they all need their own vaccine. Vaccination is like putting the body in training to recognize and destroy viruses. But as the viruses increase so do the vaccine with no end in sight.

Research is focused on how to build more defenses plus how to arrest life threatening viral attacks. Break the chain, stop the advance, etc.

So can we build more natural immunity or strengthen our natural defenses in any way? Does this have no role to play in the whole human versus virus story? Is auto immunity of no relevance? Is diet and lifestyle no important in this context? What about the role of stress and viral attacks? ‘Fighting fit’. This phrase was never more relevant than in the context of the fight against new and mutating viruses. To end on a naive note: is there potential for actually learning to live more comfortably with viruses?

MAN AGAINST VIRUS: A Brief History

1500s

Doctors in India use an early version of vaccination against smallpox, introducing small amounts of dried pus from smallpox sores into the skin of healthy patients.

1721

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduces smallpox variolation—direct exposure to dried pus or sores—to England, having witnessed it in Constantinople. Although variolation carries a 2 to 3 percent risk of death, the practice spreads through Europe.

1774

Benjamin Jesty, an English cattle breeder, is credited with performing the first vaccination in history. Jesty had long known that dairymaids didn’t get smallpox. He guessed it was because of their exposure to cowpox, a similar disease in cows. Jesty inoculated his wife and children with cowpox, protecting them from smallpox for years.

1798

Edward Jenner, a British physician, publishes the first scientific report of a vaccination experiment using cowpox.

1885

Louis Pasteur invents a vaccine for rabies. It was the first to use a laboratory-weakened strain of the target virus, rather than a related virus like cowpox, to induce immunity.

1898

A Dutch biologist named Martinus Beijerinck searches for the cause of a disease killing tobacco plants. He passes sap from infected leaves through porcelain filters so fine that bacteria can’t get through. Yet the sap can still cause healthy tobacco leaves to wilt. He argues that the disease is caused by a tiny agent smaller than a bacterium.

1939

Oxford biologists Howard Florey and Ernst Chain discover how to produce large quantities of antibiotic and test it on humans. Industrial-scale production of penicillin soon begins.

1944

American virologist Wendell Stanley reports that penicillin and other antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

1957

Interferons, antiviral proteins produced naturally by infected cells, are discovered. They are hailed as a potential miracle drug but prove to be risky and unreliable as an antiviral.

1959

William Prusoff of Yale University discovers idoxuridine, the first effective antiviral. It fights herpes by interfering with the assembly of new virus genes. Approved in 1963 by the FDA, it can only be used topically for herpes infections in the eye because of dangerous side effects in other parts of the body.

1964

After screening thousands of compounds for antiviral activity, scientists get a hit: a compound called amantadine proves effective against influenza. It is approved in the late 1960s.

1967

The World Health Organization launches a campaign to eradicate smallpox, which still kills some 15 million people a year.

1972

Researchers discover a broad-spectrum antiviral, which can work against a number of viruses. Known as ribavirin, it is now mainly used against hepatitis C. It’s not widely prescribed because it can cause anemia and other side effects.

1974

Acyclovir, an antiviral for herpes viruses, is discovered.

1978

The last known death from smallpox occurs. In 1980, WHO declares its eradication campaign a success. Three decades later, stocks of smallpox still remain in American and Russian laboratories, and there are suspicions that some stocks of virus are unaccounted for. If smallpox were to emerge again, doctors would have no antiviral drug to combat it.

1985

Scientists discover the first antiviral effective against HIV. Known as AZT, it is later joined by a number of other drugs.

1989

AZT-resistant strains of HIV are discovered. Doctors soon begin prescribing cocktails of several different antivirals to slow the evolution of resistance.

1996

Gilead Sciences researchers discover a new antiviral for influenza, marketed as Tamiflu.

2005

Scientists report influenza viruses that are resistant to Tamiflu. Since then, resistant strains have spread around the world.

2011

Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Merck win FDA approval for highly effective new antivirals for hepatitis C, which infects 170 million people worldwide.

Courtesy: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/ff_antivirals/all/1

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