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Gene therapy is a method that alters cells’ genetic code to prevent or treat disease. Doctors package a strand of DNA into a virus, also known as a vector, that infects cells and inserts the DNA. Through this infection, the DNA may encode beneficial proteins or replenish the product of a mutated gene. However, the body’s immune system has defenses designed to neutralize foreign DNA, so doctors need to find suitable vectors to protect the DNA until it reaches the desired host. Edward H. Egelman and his team from the Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics Department at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have discovered a nearly indestructible virus called SIRV2Sulfolobus islandicus Rod-shaped Virus 2, that can potentially be used in future gene therapy treatments.

 Viruses, such as the ebola virus depicted, contain DNA; doctors can substitute the virus DNA for more beneficial DNA and use the virus as a vector to transfer the DNA.

Image Source: Smith Collection/Gado

SIRV2 is able to withstand extremely inhospitable conditions like acidic hot springs that reach temperatures of around 80 degrees Celsius. Its extreme durability seems to come from the fact that it packages DNA in the A-form, a unique conformation seen in dehydrated DNA samples that is more resistant to DNA degradation from sources like UV radiation. The team also discovered similarities between the SIRV2 virus and bacteria that enter a spore-state to endure harsh conditions like dessication, high temperature, and UV radiation. These spores can cause very deadly diseases like anthrax, so “understanding how these bacterial spores work gives us potentially new abilities to destroy them,” according to Egelman (Josh Barney, University of Virginia). Further research into the similarities between bacterial spores and SIRV2 could reveal new methods to package DNA for gene therapies.

The research paper can be found here.

Feature Image Source: gene therapy by South Florida Sun

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