Turn over a new leaf

Article: Tobacco Could Hold the Key to Revolutionary Gene Therapy
Author: Aaron Rowe


Scientists have discovered a way to inject siRNA (small interfering RNA) into specific cells using a modified tobacco plant virus. This siRNA can reprogram certain cells to attack disease-causing proteins with minimal side effects. The hollowed tobacco plant virus is harmless to humans and serves as a secure transport vessel for the modified RNA.

History and Progression:
William Bentley, a bioengineering professor at the University of Maryland, learned of the tobacco virus known as mosaic by a colleague across the hall from Bentley’s lab. This colleague had apparently been researching the virus’ use for nano wires and batteries.

Until now, scientists had been using other methods to deliver the siRNA into the body, such as adenoviruses or nanoparticles, or limiting their targeted delivery area to the eyes or lungs (where siRNA survive with minimal support). These were not without risks, as the adenoviruses could cause immune system difficulties and the nanoparticles could cause so-called collateral damage.

Though the transport method has shown to be successful with cells in a dish, it has not yet been tested in human trials.

Rather than the current standard of taking several years of research by a large team , a single scientist can use siRNA and develop a drug candidate in a matter of weeks. Also, a targeted attack using the mosaic virus technique would have a faster effect than if the cells were targeted systemically. Evidence has shown that a coat of special proteins on the mosaic virus “syringe,” scientists can create drugs that travel to where they are needed.

The tobacco mosaic virus is harmless to humans, according to Bentley’s team. It has demonstrated that people already have traces of the virus in their blood resulting from second-hand smoke exposure, which has caused no apparent problems. While the siRNA are considered very fragile molecules alone, they have proven to be no harmful than a saltwater placebo in recent clinical trial involving an inhaler.

Because the siRNA is so fragile, scientists are excited about this new method of delivery. Previous successes at siRNA delivery have been limited. Should this new method prove successful, scientists may be closer to finding effective ways of treating most cancers, viruses and genetic disorders without introducing harmful chemicals into the body. This makes way for many medical treatment advances.

Positive Benefits:
This delivery system provides simple and effective methods for disease treatment with little to no side effects.

Negative Effects:
Some scientists believe that the use of the mosaic virus will be limited, as people will develop immunities to it. At that point, it would be ineffective since the body will be trying to remove the pathogen from the body.

Political Beliefs:
Pharmaceutical companies probably won’t appreciate this advancement, since it will reduce a patient’s need for drug therapy and therefore a reduction in profits. Some companies will benefit from this advancement, as they can provide the manufacturing of the hollowed out virus.

I imagine that conservatives will attempt to limit RNA research, since it interferes with their religious beliefs, by a reduction in federal funding. Regardless of religious beliefs, I think that RNA manipulation should be heavily regulated, but still explored. Our society would not be where it is today if loud-spoken politicians had imposed their personal beliefs on science and experimentation. Occasionally risks must be taken and norms much be disregarded in order for advancements bettering society to take place.

Religious Beliefs:
By altering the genetic makeup of cells, the natural composition is disturbed. It may even be possible to prevent certain genetic traits prior to birth using this technology. Some religions may consider this activity as “playing god” and will make efforts to severely limit the research into these topics, if not stop them completely. I personally believe that this mindset is dangerous. Every new science is theoretically dangerous, but we must make attempts to learn and understand as much as we can about it in order to make informed decisions on how to apply it.

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